KUALA LUMPUR — U.S. President Barack Obama is winding down a visit to Malaysia, where he faced tough questions Sunday on political freedoms in the country. Next, the president heads to the Philippines, where U.S. officials confirm they will sign an agreement to rotate U.S. troops into Philippine military bases.
After a lavish welcome on Saturday, President Obama on Sunday toured Malaysia's large National Mosque, which sits on more than five hectares and holds up to 15,000 people.
The mosque visit was a gesture of goodwill toward Malaysia's predominantly Muslim population. Obama sought to portray the country as a model of democracy and a model for coexistence between a Muslim majority and the sizable minorities of Buddhists, Christians and Hindus.
Earlier, Obama held talks with Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak on the third leg of a four-nation tour of Asia - the first trip to the Southeast Asian nation by a sitting U.S. president in nearly five decades.
At a joint news conference Sunday, Razak expressed his gratitude for American help in the search for missing Malaysia Airline flight 370. Obama pledged to continue providing all the assistance possible in the search for the plane, which has been missing for seven weeks.
The two leaders said they had agreed to upgrade upper-level ties to a "comprehensive partnership," and to cooperate on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and the nuclear Proliferation Security Initiative, both of which Malaysia has opposed in the past.
Not at the forefront of the president's visit were discussions on what critics say are the Malaysian government attempts to clamp down on press freedom and quash the opposition. Obama's schedule did not include a meeting with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. The government has for years been pursuing sodomy charges against Anwar in what his supporters say is an illegitimate attempt to keep him from running for office.
At joint briefing with Razak, Obama was asked why he did not meet with Anwar.
“The fact that I've not met with Anwar is in and of itself not indicative of a lack of concern given the fact that there are a lot of people I don't meet with and opposition leaders that I don't meet with, and that doesn't mean I'm not concerned about them," Obama said.
The U.S. president said he did raise the issue of civil liberties with Prime Minister Najib.
“What I have shared with the prime minister is the core belief that societies that respect rule of law, that respect freedom of speech, that respect the right of opposition to oppose even when it drives you crazy, even when it's inconvenient, respect for freedom of assembly, the respect for people of different races and different faiths and different political philosophies, that those values are at the core of who the U.S. is but also are a pretty good gauge of whether society is going to be successful in the 21st century or not," said Obama.
On the missing Malaysia Airlines flight, Obama said the U.S. remains absolutely committed to providing whatever resources it can to facilitate the search.
Lyndon Johnson was the last U.S. president to travel to Malaysia in 1966 during the Vietnam War, when the United States was working to maintain support among its Southeast Asian allies against the spread of communism. Now, Obama has a different challenge in the region: the threat of China's expanding military and - primarily - its growing assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, where it has competing territorial claims with a number of countries.
Those claims and the threats they pose to regional security are the main theme in the Philippines, his fourth stop on this Asian tour. The Philippines and China are locked in a dispute over islands in the South China Sea.
The major item on the president's agenda in Manila is an agreement on enhanced defense cooperation to rotate U.S. troops into the country and station them temporarily on Philippine military bases. It would allow for the largest U.S. military presence in the country since the Philippines ended the leases on U.S. bases more than two decades ago.
The agreement says U.S. troops can come only by invitation of the Philippine government. But critics say the deal violates Philippine sovereignty and have staged demonstrations ahead of Obama's arrival.