President Barack Obama nudged Malaysia on Sunday over its controversial handling of dissent but made clear Washington intended to deepen its friendship with a country it considers vital to US objectives in the Asia-Pacific.
Obama also offered continued US support in the search for missing flight MH370 as he held talks with Prime Minister Najib Razak, after which the two leaders declared the start of a warmer new era in relations.
“Today across a whole range of areas — security, trade, and regional institutions — we are working more closely than ever before,” Obama said during a joint press conference, calling Malaysia “central” to stability in Southeast Asia.
During a trip that started in Japan and South Korea and finishes in the Philippines on Tuesday, Obama has reinforced US security support for regional allies alarmed by China’s claims to vast maritime expanses around the region.
These include overlapping claims with Malaysia and others in the South China Sea.
But Obama was drawn into Malaysia’s highly polarised politics during the press briefing with Najib, whose government is accused of stifling free expression and using courts and police to harass or jail opponents.
Obama said he stressed to Najib the importance of respecting dissent and ensuring rule of law and would “make sure that we are making progress on that front”.
But with the trip’s larger objectives clearly in mind, he also gave Najib political cover, noting what he called Malaysian “progress” on rights.
“I think the prime minister is the first to acknowledge that Malaysia still has some work to do, just like the United States still has some work to do,” he said.
– Russian ‘provocation’ –
While intending to focus on Washington’s “rebalance” of strategic and economic attention to Asia, Obama has repeatedly had to deal with foreign-policy crises elsewhere, particularly Ukraine.
On Sunday he said new international sanctions set to come into force against Russia would send a message that it must stop its “provocation” in eastern Ukraine, where fears of a possible Russian military invasion are growing.
“So long as Russia continues down a path of provocation rather than trying to resolve this issue peacefully and de-escalate it, there are going to be consequences and those consequences will continue to grow,” Obama said.
While in South Korea, Obama addressed signs that North Korea — which he called a “pariah state” — was preparing for a fourth atomic weapons test in defiance of the United Nations.
Obama stressed Washington’s commitment to Asia on Sunday as he met Southeast Asian young leaders at a “town hall” meeting in Malaysia.
“We have been moving forward on our rebalance to this part of the world,” he said.
Obama is the first sitting US president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson in 1966.
Malaysia later emerged as a vocal anti-Western member of the non-aligned movement, but Najib has changed the tune since taking office in 2009, dovetailing with Washington’s wish to shore up security partnerships in the region amid China’s rise.
Early Sunday Obama paid homage to multi-cultural Malaysia’s relatively moderate brand of Islam in a visit to Kuala Lumpur’s marble-colonnaded National Mosque, with its modernist aqua-blue roof shaped like a pointed star.
Mosque guides gave the president a tour of fountain pools, an ornate prayer room and the mausoleums of revered former Malaysian leaders.
The US administration has raised eyebrows by leaving opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim off Obama’s list of appointments.
Anwar was sentenced to five years in jail on March 7 on charges he sodomised a former aide. He says the charge is false and intended to decapitate his surging opposition coalition. The US government also has criticised the case.
– Support on MH370 –
In the joint briefing, Najib denied his government was involved. He has previously admitted meeting with Anwar’s accuser before the case was filed.
Anwar was to meet instead with Obama’s top foreign policy adviser Susan Rice, which the president said was “not indicative of a lack of concern” over Anwar’s case.
The US leader also offered commiserations over missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and warned of a protracted search for the plane.
“It is a very challenging effort, a laborious effort and it is going to take some time,” said Obama.
The jet mysteriously disappeared on March 8 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people aboard and is thought to have crashed in the Indian Ocean.
But no trace has been found, leaving distraught relatives demanding answers and accusing Malaysia of a bungled response and cover-up.
Obama urged “full transparency” but said Najib’s government had been “fully forthcoming” with the information it has.
He added the United States “is absolutely committed to providing whatever resources and assets that we can” to Malaysia.