WASHINGTON (AFP) – Barack Obama will pay the first visit by a US president to Malaysia in a half-century on a four-nation Asia tour next month, the White House said Friday.
Obama will attend summits in Indonesia and Brunei and also visit the Philippines, a longtime US ally that supports greater military ties, during the October 6-12 trip.
The last US president to visit Malaysia was Lyndon Johnson in 1966. US relations with the Muslim-majority nation soured during the 1981-2003 tenure of prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, a strident critic of the West.
The White House said that Obama will visit Malaysia to take part in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, an initiative on job growth that the US leader designed as a way to reach out to the Islamic world.
Obama will also meet Prime Minister Najib Razak “to highlight our growing bilateral ties with Malaysia,” a White House statement said.
Obama, who spent part of his youth in Indonesia, has put a priority on building relations with Southeast Asia, seeing the fast-growing and largely US-friendly region as neglected in the past.
The trip is “part of his ongoing commitment to increase US political, economic and security engagement with the Asia Pacific,” the statement said.
Obama will take part in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali, Indonesia and then head to the sultanate of Brunei for the East Asia Summit.
Russia traditionally participates in the regional meetings, potentially giving Obama his latest opportunity to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia has spearheaded a proposal for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to put his chemical weapons under international control, at least temporarily halting a US push for a military strike in retaliation for the regime’s alleged use of the weapons.
Michael Green, who was the top Asia adviser to former president George W. Bush, said that Obama’s “muddled message” on Syria could cast a pall over his public reception in Malaysia and Indonesia.
“If the process that the Russians have manufactured goes nowhere, which is very likely, and we’re back to debate and possibly the use of force, that is not the context that you want to take into countries like Malaysia or Indonesia,” said Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“You can’t always make the summit about Asia when something in the other part of the world is catching the White House press corps’s attention,” he said.
Obama will be paying the first visit by a US president to the Philippines, a treaty-bound US ally and former colony, since Bush in 2003.
The Philippines said in June it was looking to give the United States, as well as Japan, greater access to its bases as it seeks to counter what it perceives as a growing threat from China.
China — which contests maritime areas with the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan — earlier Friday issued its latest warning for the United States to stay out of disputes.
The United States “should not send wrong signals that support or connive with relevant countries to act on their own initiative,” senior Chinese military officer Wang Guanzhong told a US official in Beijing.
The Obama administration has repeatedly urged freedom of navigation and has stepped up military cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam.
With the trip, Obama would have visited all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations except communist nations Vietnam and Laos.
The United States has been seeking better relations with both nations. Obama in July received President Truong Tan Sang who was paying the second visit by a Vietnamese head of state to the White House since the two nations’ war.
Obama pledged to visit Vietnam but did not give a date. Vietnamese American activists had urged Obama not to visit on his upcoming trip, saying he should first seek improvements in human rights.