Obama Backs Malaysian Plane Probe as Countries Push Trade Pact

U.S. President Barack Obama said the Malaysian government is working “tirelessly” to investigate the disappearance of Malaysian Air Flight 370 and has been “fully forthcoming” with U.S. officials and “eager” for help.

The expression of support by Obama during a news conference with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in Putrajaya, just outside the capital Kuala Lumpur, comes amid rising tensions and conflicting reports as the hunt for the Boeing 777 that vanished March 8 with 239 people on board has failed to find the plane or any debris from it.

“We will continue to provide all the assistance we can” in the search for the plane, Obama said. Investigators are looking to widen the seabed scan in the Indian Ocean being conducted by an unmanned submarine and family members, many of them from China, last week detained airline employees sent to meet with them.

Obama’s visit as part of a four-country Asia tour also comes as he seeks a free-trade agreement with Malaysia as part of a broader 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership that would link a region with $28 trillion in annual economic output, about 39 percent of the world total. Obama’s trip to Malaysia has been framed by administration officials as a way to encourage deeper economic and security ties with Najib, who will chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, in 2015.

Malaysia and the U.S. agreed to upgrade their bilateral relationship to a comprehensive partnership, Najib told reporters at the briefing, allowing for greater collaboration on economic, security and technology matters.

‘Own Accord’

Countries need to “wait and see” the details before they decide if it will hurt patient access to medicine or have negative impacts on consumers or jobs, Obama said of the TPP. “You shouldn’t be surprised if there are going to be objections, protests, rumors, conspiracy theories, political aggravation around a trade deal.”

“We went to the TPP on our own accord,” Najib said. While issues surrounding the trade pact are “complex,” both countries are committed to resolving the remaining issues, he said.

Malaysia has more outstanding TPP issues than other countries in the talks, International Trade and Industry Minister Mustapa Mohamed told reporters April 22. Matters related to investor-state dispute settlement are “very big” for Malaysia, he said.

The TPP goes beyond usual agreements that focus on tariffs and traditional goods such as agriculture. It would establish rules for digital commerce and include environmental standards and protection for companies that compete against government-backed businesses. Obama left Japan last week without an agreement with that country over the agriculture and automotive sectors, a barrier to any broader deal.

Reassuring Allies

It has been important during Obama’s trip to Asia, which has so far taken in Japan and Malaysia, for him to reassure allies of the U.S. commitment, according to former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“The president in his press conference with Prime Minister Abe did exactly that -- to send a very strong signal that the United States is going to carry through on its obligations,” Rice said in an interview yesterday in Beijing, referring to the Japanese premier. “That’s a stabilizing factor in the region,” she said. “I would hope that the TPP will really get wind.”

Anwar Questions

Obama faced questions during the joint briefing with Najib about opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who in March was sentenced to five years in jail after a Malaysian court overturned his acquittal in 2012 on a sodomy charge.

Asked during the news conference why he does not plan to meet with Anwar -- Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice is scheduled to see Anwar today on Obama’s behalf -- the U.S. president said he often doesn’t spend time with opposition leaders during visits to other countries. “That doesn’t mean that I’m not concerned,” he said.

Obama said he constantly raises issues about human rights, civil liberties and press freedoms in meetings with foreign leaders, including Najib. “There’s more work that needs to be done,” Obama said.

Najib “came in as a reformer,” Obama said, and called him “a friend and a partner.”

Opposition groups called for Obama to meet with Anwar. Obama is scheduled to meet with civil society leaders during his visit.

‘More Work’

Najib said Malaysia is committed to the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and civil liberty. ‘’There is more work that needs to be done in Malaysia and society has to be prepared for changes,’’ he said. “I want to ensure there is peace, stability and harmony in Malaysia and that’s what I am doing.”

He said the Anwar case was brought by an individual, not the government, and with the case before the courts he could not comment specifically on it. Anwar’s lawyers filed an appeal petition on his behalf at the Putrajaya Court on April 24, according to Ramkarpal Singh, a lawyer with the Kuala Lumpur-based legal firm Karpal & Co.

Winning back his parliamentary seat in 2008 after his release from prison in 2004 when an earlier sodomy conviction was overturned, Anwar leads an ideologically varied coalition known as the People’s Alliance, or Pakatan Rakyat.

The primary goal of the coalition has been to unseat a party in office since Malaysia’s independence in 1957, even as members disagree among themselves on everything from its agenda to the implementation of Islamic law in the Muslim majority nation.

Territory Claims

Malaysia is one of the claimants, alongside China, to portions of the South China Sea, a resource-rich area through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run. The U.S. is looking to its allies in the region to help counter a more militarily assertive China, which has also been pushing its claims against Japan in the East China Sea.

“On the South China Sea, President Obama and I both stressed earlier the importance of upholding universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Najib said.

Malaysia has become a focus of the administration’s efforts to connect to younger individuals. Obama launched the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative during the trip, a program designed to build networks throughout Southeast Asia.

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