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Obama arrives for Malaysia trade and security talks

US President Barack Obama has arrived in Malaysia as part of a tour of Asia. He faces a delicate balancing act, seeking cooperation on security and trade with a government whose democratic integrity has been questioned.

After stepping off of his plane at Kuala Lumpur's Royal Malaysian Air Base, the US president was whisked away to the city's Parliament Square to be greeted by the country's monarch, King Abdul Halim, and Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Obama's next stop was the Istana Negara, the country's national palace, for an audience with the country's royal family.

Obama - who has said he wishes to rebalance the US' foreign policy focus towards Asia - is the first US president to visit the island nation since Lyndon Johnson in 1966. Relations were strained during the 1981-2003 tenure of Malaysia's authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad, who was a strong critic of US policies.

However, Obama and Najib are believed to be seeking improved relations, including greater cooperation on defense. Trade, which remained strong even when relations were acrimonious, is also likely to be on the agenda.

"The good rapport between Prime Minister Najib Razak and President Barack Obama will ensure the bilateral discussions on economy, on security and on the people-to-people relations are open, constructive and productive," Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said in a press briefing ahead of the trip.

There were mixed messages about whether Obama would meet opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, with one senior official saying that a "packed" presidential schedule would not allow for it.

National security advisor Susan Rice, on the other hand, said the meeting would take place.

Appealing a prison sentence

Ibrahim - who is appealing against a jail sentence on a conviction of sodomy - called the government a "corrupt and authoritarian regime" in a statement on Saturday, urging Obama to stand up for "freedom and democracy."

Prime Minister Najib is under fire amid accusations of rampant corruption from members of his coalition, which has held power for decades.

The government is also accused of stifling opposition views, particularly after an election last year that saw most of the popular vote go to Najib's opponents. Critics say the only reason Najib has clung to power is a skewed electoral system that favors the ruling coalition.

Obama began his four day tour in Japan, where he offered Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assurances about US support, particularly in a stand-off over Japanese-controlled islands that are claimed by China.

He moved on for a visit to South Korea, where he visited some of the approximately 28,500 US troops stationed there, before heading to Malaysia.

Obama visits the Kuala Lumpur's National Mosque on Sunday and will hold the talks with Najib before meeting youth leaders from around Southeast Asia. He heads for the Philippines on Monday morning.

rc/kms (AP, dpa)

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