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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Opening the first visit to Malaysia by a U.S. president in nearly half a century, Barack Obama looked ahead today to economic and security talks with Prime Minister Najib Razak, who leads a southeast Asian nation with an important role in Obama’s efforts to forge deeper ties with the region.
Stepping onto a red carpet at the Royal Malaysian Air Base, Obama was whisked by limousine to Kuala Lumpur’s Parliament Square, where a 21-gun salute rang out as Malaysia’s king and prime minister greeted Obama under muggy skies and a yellow awning. 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 to be 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 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 will not meet with a prominent Malaysian opposition leader despite appeals from human rights groups.
Obama, in a written interview with the Malaysian newspaper The Star, said his main message is that the U.S. welcomes its growing contributions to security and prosperity in the region.
“I see my visit as an opportunity to formalize a comprehensive partnership, and lay the foundation for even closer ties for years to come,” Obama said ahead of his visit, the first by a U.S. president since Lyndon B. Johnson came here in 1966.
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 involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade negotiations, a top priority for Obama’s global economic agenda.
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.
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Officials are widening the search area in a remote part of the ocean where the jet may have crashed. In a sign of the ongoing agony, about 50 relatives of missing Chinese passengers 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.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with Obama that the president typically does not meet with opposition leaders during foreign visits, but felt the issue was important enough to dispatch Rice instead. Obama and other top officials have raised Anwar’s case in past meetings with Malaysian officials, Rhodes added.
Halfway through the eight-day, four-nation trip, Obama has started showing signs of weariness from the mileage and the 12- to 12-hour time shift from Washington while traveling in Asia. He normally jogs up the stairs to Air Force One, but on Saturday slowed to a walk instead.
Before departing Seoul today, Obama addressed U.S. troops stationed in South Korea and received a military briefing focused on North Korea. Obama will also visit the Philippines before returning to Washington next week.