KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - 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.
Mr 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," Mr Obama said during a joint press conference, calling Malaysia "central" to stability in South-east Asia.
During a trip that started in Japan and South Korea and finishes in the Philippines on Tuesday, Mr 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 Mr Obama was drawn into Malaysia's highly polarised politics during the press briefing with Mr Najib, whose government is accused of using courts and police to harass or jail opponents and stifling free expression.
Mr Obama said he stressed to Mr 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 Mr Najib political cover, noting what he called "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.
While intending to focus on Washington's "rebalance" of strategic and economic attention to the Asia-Pacific, Mr Obama has repeatedly had to deal with foreign-policy crises elsewhere, particularly in 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, which is descending into chaos, raising fears of a Russian military invasion.
"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," Mr Obama said.
Mr Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson in 1966.
Relations have been marked by bickering in recent decades when Malaysia was a vocal anti-Western member of the non-aligned movement.
But the more Western-minded Mr Najib has changed the tune, dovetailing with Washington's wish to shore up security partnerships in the region amid China's rise.
Early Sunday Mr Obama paid homage to multi-cultural Malaysia's relatively moderate brand of Islam in a visit to Kuala Lumpur's marble-colonnaded National Mosque.
The US administration sparked controversy earlier when it left opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim off Mr Obama's list of appointments.
Mr Anwar was sentenced to five years in jail on March 7 on charges he sodomised a former aide. Mr Anwar says the charge is false and intended to decapitate his surging opposition coalition. The US government also has criticised the case.
Mr Najib denied his government was involved, calling it a private matter. However, he has previously admitted meeting with Mr Anwar's accuser before the case was filed.
Mr Obama said the fact that Mr Anwar would instead meet his top foreign policy adviser Susan Rice "is not indicative of a lack of concern" in the Anwar case.
During Mr Obama's visit to the National Mosque, with its modernist aqua-blue roof shaped like a pointed star, guides gave the president a tour of fountain pools, an ornate prayer room and Malaysia's Warrior Mausoleum.
Around 60 percent of Malaysians are Muslim ethnic Malays, but the country also has large Christian, Hindu, Confucian and other communities.
Mr Obama convenes a "town hall" meeting in Malaysia later on Sunday with young participants from around South-east Asia, and will launch an Asian Young Leaders project modelled on a similar initiative in Africa.
The US leader also offered commiserations over the missing Malaysia Airlines flight and warned of a "laborious" process ahead in finding the plane.
"I want to again express the deepest condolences of the American people to all the families who lost loved ones on that flight," he said.
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.
Mr Obama urged "full transparency" but said the United states and other countries involved in the response have found the Malaysian government "fully forthcoming with us in terms of the information that they have."