President Obama heads into security and trade talks Sunday with Malaysia as he works to build closer ties with the southeast Asian nation and other U.S. allies in the region. But the president finds his four-nation Asian tour overshadowed by the deepening Ukraine crisis and other foreign-policy setbacks.
The growing Ukraine showdown prompted the United States and other Group of Seven nations to promise to broaden sanctions against Russia. U.S. actions could start as early as Monday.
The U.S. government last month imposed sanctions on 27 high-level Russian officials and associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin. En route to Kuala Lumpur, Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, indicated that the sanctions likely would be extended to more individuals and the businesses they control.
He said the U.S. moves would target "cronies" who control "large parts of the Russian economy."
Malaysia is the third-stop on Obama's Asian swing and marks the first visit by the U.S. president to the predominantly Muslim country in nearly a half century. It follows stops in Japan and South Korea. On Monday, Obama heads to the Philippines, where he is expected to sign a security agreement paving the way for a greater military presence.
Malaysia is one of a dozen countries involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade negotiations. The proposed deal was a major focus on Obama's visit to Tokyo earlier in the week, but negotiators have failed so far to overcome the opposition of Japanese farmers to plans to open the country's markets to imports of rice, poultry and other agricultural goods.
While his Asian swing does not include any stops in China, its presence has loomed over the trip. In remarks throughout his visit, Obama has tried to reaffirm U.S. military support for allies in the region engaged in territorial disputes with Beijing and encourage China's leaders to wield their clout over North Korea's isolated and unpredictable government.
On Sunday, the president is slated to talk trade, maritime security and defense with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who joined Malaysian King Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah in greeting Obama a day earlier amid a 21-gun salute.
During a state dinner at the Istana Negara palace, the king thanked Obama for U.S. help following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and said he welcomed the two countries working "hand in hand" to ensure "peace and stability" in the region.
The U.S. is helping in the search for the commercial jet, which disappeared last month with 239 people on board.
In a grand ballroom filled with about 600 dinner guests, Obama used a few words of Bahasa Malaysian to toast his hosts. He noted his late mother's love of batik. In her anthropology training, his mother, Ann Dunham, focused on the indigenous crafts of Indonesia, where Obama lived as a young boy.
"For my mother, batik wasn't about fashion. ... It was a window into the lives of others — their cultures, lives and tradition," the president said.
"My mother believed, and I believe, that whether we come from a remote village or a big city, whether we live in the United States or in Malaysia, we all share basic human aspirations," he said. "To live in dignity and peace. To shape our own destiny. To be able to make a living and to work hard and support a family."
Obama has rebuffed calls from human rights activists to meet with Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim during his two-day visit to the country.
Anwar, the former deputy prime minister, was recently convicted on sodomy charges that the U.S. and international human rights groups argue are politically motivated.
Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, is scheduled to meet with Anwar instead. Rhodes told reporters that the president does not usually meet with opposition figures during foreign visits.
Contributing: Associated Press