Obama woos Asean from Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR - US President Barack Obama will renew his courtship of Southeast Asia on Sunday, launching a grass roots effort to inspire the region's next generation of leaders in the virtues of democracy.

Obama will convene a "town hall" meeting in Malaysia, with young participants from other Association of Southeast Asian nations (Asean) on the third leg of a regional tour interrupted by global turbulence.

Obama, an aspirational politician, often appears most at home with idealistic young people with the future before them, and his Asian Young Leaders project will be modelled on a similar initiative in Africa.

That plan concentrates millions of US aid dollars to connect young Africans across the continent, teach entrepreneurship and foster educational exchanges with the United States.

- First in 50 years -

Obama on Saturday became the first sitting US president in nearly 50 years to visit moderate-Muslim Malaysia, and quickly expressed solidarity with his hosts over the mystery of missing flight MH370.

Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Obama told him he knows "it is a tough, long, road ahead," over the missing airliner which vanished with 239 people aboard in March.

"We'll work together. There is always support," Hishammuddin said the US leader told him at a humid arrival ceremony under grey skies punctuated with a crashing formal field gun salute.

Obama's tour reaffirms his view that the United States is a key Pacific power in a region where US allies are discomforted by the rise of China and where maritime tensions have disrupted years of relative calm between nations.

But he has one eye elsewhere, notably on the deepening standoff with Russia over Ukraine.

Late Friday, Obama convened a conference call with EU leaders which resulted in a G7 statement that new sanctions against Moscow could be unveiled as soon as Monday.

Obama has also been forced to address the potential threat of a new nuclear weapons test by North Korea and his administration's crumbling Middle East effort.

US ties with economically successful Malaysia have vastly improved after years of anti-US antagonism under former leader Mahathir Mohamad.

Washington sees Malaysia as a pivotal player in Southeast Asia, and Obama's talks Sunday with Prime Minister Najib Razak will concentrate on increasing convergence in trade, security cooperation and intelligence-sharing.

"While we may be different as nations, our people have similar hopes and similar aspirations," Obama said in a toast to Malaysia's king, Sultan Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah, at a state dinner.

- Maritime tensions -

Malaysia is among several nations with competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, where Beijing's assertiveness has sparked alarm.

In Japan, Obama made clear that US mutual defence agreements with Tokyo covered disputed islands in the East China Sea also claimed by Beijing.

But in a sign of festering tensions, Japanese authorities said two Chinese coastguard ships sailed into Japan's territorial waters around the islands again on Saturday -- just two days after Obama left Tokyo.

In a Malaysian newspaper interview published Saturday, Obama touted growing security cooperation with Malaysia as a way to ensure "freedom of navigation in critical waterways" and that nations "play by the same rules" -- a clear reference to China.

- Rising discontent -

Obama has a professed affinity with Southeast Asia, having spent four years as a boy in Indonesia.

He will simultaneously court Najib, with whom he will hold a press conference Sunday, and acknowledge rising discontent with the corruption-plagued coalition in power for 57 years, which is accused of persecuting opponents.

"We support an open political process in Malaysia. We have been concerned when we see any restrictions on the political space," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.

The White House skipped a meeting between Obama and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who faces five years in jail on a March 7 sodomy conviction he calls politically motivated and which the US government has criticised.

Anwar will instead meet US national security adviser Susan Rice.

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