Obama will become first US president to visit Malaysia in 50 years

US President Barack Obama walks to Marine One prior to departure on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 22, 2014. Mr Barack Obama will become the first US president to visit Malaysia in nearly 50 years this weekend, seeking
US President Barack Obama walks to Marine One prior to departure on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 22, 2014. Mr Barack Obama will become the first US president to visit Malaysia in nearly 50 years this weekend, seeking to put decades of uneasy relations behind him as both cast wary eyes on a rising China. -- PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Mr Barack Obama will become the first US president to visit Malaysia in nearly 50 years this weekend, seeking to put decades of uneasy relations behind him as both cast wary eyes on a rising China.

Mindful of America's perennial image problem in the Islamic world, Mr Obama - who visits Malaysia from Saturday to next Monday - is expected to tout the US friendship with the economically thriving moderate Muslim nation. As one of several rival claimants to parts of the South China Sea, Malaysia is also an important partner in the US "rebalance" of its strategic attention to Asia, where concern is rising over Beijing's territorial assertiveness.

Mr Obama will "highlight the growing strategic and economic relationship" with Malaysia and its "credentials as a moderate, Muslim-majority state and emerging democracy", said Dr Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, meanwhile, will seek to capitalise on Mr Obama's expected praise to counter flagging voter support and global criticism over the handling of the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

Mr Obama was five years old the last time a serving US leader visited multi-cultural Malaysia: Mr Lyndon Johnson came in 1966 to rally support for the US war in Vietnam.

Tension followed during the 1981-2003 tenure of Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad, a harsh critic of US policies. But ties - especially trade - remained solid, and the more Western-oriented Mr Najib has sought even closer relations.

US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes this week expressed hope that the visit would "elevate US-Malaysian relations to a new stage".

Mr Obama was to visit Malaysia late last year, but postponed it to deal with the US government shutdown.

Underlining the need for a re-introduction after nearly a half-century, Malaysia is the only stop on Mr Obama's Asian swing - which also includes Japan, South Korea and the Philippines - that has a "town-hall meeting". At the event on Sunday, Mr Obama will engage youth leaders from Malaysia and around South-east Asia. He will also meet Malaysia's king and pay a visit to the National Mosque.

As with Mr Obama's other stops, China will loom large. China is now easily Malaysia's top trade partner and Mr Najib has played down their rival maritime claims. But Malaysian anxieties have grown, particularly after China held naval exercises in disputed waters late last year, and the US and Malaysia have moved recently to improve defence ties.

Chinese criticism of Malaysia over MH370 has also left a bitter aftertaste.

"(Najib's government) obviously hopes that Obama's star effect can rub off on its flagging popularity," said Dr Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. "And Malaysia can continue to counterbalance China with the US in its foreign policy - siding with China economically but with the US on security."

But differences remain. The economic component of Mr Obama's "rebalance" rests largely on his envisioned Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), the region-wide trade pact bedevilled by rocky negotiations with partners.

Malaysia has resisted free-market reform requirements that clash with its controversial policies reserving economic advantages for majority ethnic Malays.

Mr Obama may also face pressure to address uncomfortable rights, democracy and religion issues in Malaysia. In elections last year, more than half of Malaysians voted against Mr Najib's 57-year-old regime, which is accused of gaming the electoral system to retain power and of cracking down on critics. Non-Muslim minorities in the multi-faith country of 28 million also complain of shrinking religious freedom.

Washington has already questioned the March conviction of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges widely considered politically motivated. US officials said Mr Obama will not meet Anwar, a decision that could draw criticism in Washington where he is popular for his reform advocacy.

Anwar, who faces five years in jail but will appeal the conviction, told AFP on Monday that a meeting with Mr Obama would have been "helpful".

Mr Obama is also scheduled to meet unspecified civil society groups. But failure to engage a broad segment of Malaysia "risks alienating an entire generation of young Malaysians who mostly support the opposition and voted for the opposition last year", Dr Kurlantzick said.

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