KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Opening the first visit to Malaysia by a U.S. president in nearly half a century, Barack Obama looked ahead Saturday to economic and security talks with Prime Minister Najib Razak, who leads a southeast Asian nation with an important role in efforts to forge deeper relations with Asia.
Stepping off his plane and onto a red carpet at the Royal Malaysian Air Base, Obama was whisked by limousine to Kuala Lumpur’s Parliament Square, where canon salutes rang out as Malaysia’s king and prime minister greeted Obama under muggy skies. A military band played the U.S. and Malaysian national anthems – twice – and Obama inspected an elaborate honor guard in crisp green and white before the arrival ceremony came to a close.
Obama’s next stop was the Istana Negara, the National Palace, for an audience with Malaysia’s royal family before he takes his seat later Saturday at a state dinner being held in his honor.
During the two-day visit, which follows stops in Japan and South Korea, Obama will also meet with citizen leaders and hold a town hall-style forum with young leaders from across the region. But Obama rejected calls from human rights groups to meet with a prominent opposition leader while in Malaysia.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said relations between the U.S. and Malaysia have blossomed in recent years and that the country has become a “pivotal state” in the Obama administration’s push to strengthen ties throughout the fast-growing and strategically important region.
Trade, defense and maritime security are among the issues Obama and Najib were expected to discuss during talks scheduled for Sunday.
Malaysia is one of a dozen countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal, a major focus during Obama’s stop in Tokyo earlier in the week. The U.S. and Japan are working to overcome differences to pave the way for the broader, regional agreement to move forward.
Last month’s disappearance of a commercial airliner carrying 239 people put Malaysia in the international spotlight as Obama was preparing to head to the region. The U.S. is assisting in the massive search effort and the disaster was expected to be on the agenda during Obama’s visit.
Officials are widening the search area in a remote part of the ocean where it’s believed the jet most likely crashed. In a sign of the ongoing agony, about 50 relatives of Chinese passengers on the plane continue a sit-in protest outside the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing, demanding answers.
Absent from Obama’s itinerary in Malaysia: A meeting with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who presents the most potent political threat to Najib amid a decline in Najib’s popular support over the past two elections.
The U.S. spurned calls from human rights groups for the president himself to meet with the 66-year-old former deputy prime minister, but was instead sending Susan Rice, his national security adviser and former U.N. ambassador, to meet with him.
Anwar was recently convicted for the second time on sodomy charges that the U.S. and international human rights groups have claimed are politically motivated. Anwar is appealing, and could be forced to give up his seat in parliament and go to prison if he loses.
Rhodes told reporters traveling with Obama that the president typically does not meet with opposition leaders when he visits other countries, but felt the issue was important enough to dispatch Rice instead. Obama and other top U.S. officials have raised Anwar’s case in past meetings with Malaysian officials, Rhodes added.
Halfway through the eight-day, four-nation trip, Obama began showing signs of weariness from the mileage and the shift 12- to 13-hours ahead of East Coast time. He normally jogs up the stairs to Air Force One, but on Saturday did a slow walk instead.
Obama arrived in Malaysia after wrapping up an overnight visit to South Korea. Before departing, he received a military briefing from the head commander of U.S.-South Korea forces and addressed U.S. troops stationed in the nation.
The last American president to visit Malaysia was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966.
Associated Press writer Eileen Ng contributed to this report.