Bucking SARS fears, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder began a four-nation visit to Asia with talks yesterday in Malaysia with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
The German leader inspected an honor guard of soldiers dressed in white uniforms with gold trimming at Malaysia's gleaming new administrative capital, Putrajaya, where he also met government ministers and senior officials.
Schroeder, whose visit is the first by a German leader to this Southeast Asian country, then went into private talks with Mahathir for just over one hour.
The two leaders had a "very free-flowing discussion" on issues including business relations, Iraq, the Middle East and terrorism, said Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, who was present.
They agreed the UN should play a central role in postwar Iraq and that peace in the Middle East could only be achieved through the establishment of a Palestinian state, Syed Hamid said.
"Both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the UN and the multipolarity of the world," Syed Hamid told reporters.
"On the question of Iraq, we said we hoped the world will be able to look at the whole thing, not from the perspective of one single nation but from the perspective of all nations working together through the United Nations system," he said.
Malaysia, a moderate, mostly Muslim country of about 24 million people, has been a vocal critic of the US-led invasion of Iraq and what it calls the marginalization of the UN by US policy. Schroeder's Germany, along with France, Russia and China, was a key opponent of authorizing the US- and British-led invasion of Iraq in the UN Security Council.
Schroeder and his delegation, which includes Economic Minister Wolfgang Clement, will also visit Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The diplomatic trip aims to bolster Germany's trade relations with Southeast Asia at a time when relations between European countries and the US are still suffering from differences over Iraq.
Schroeder's delegation has been reduced to 30 people from the originally planned 120 due to worries over severe acute respiratory syndrome, which has killed more than 530 people and infected more than 7,300 others worldwide, mostly in Asia.
Wolfgang Massing, Germany's ambassador to Vietnam, said the leader was making the trip despite being urged to avoid the region because of SARS.
"At the last minute, there was strong pressure on the chancellor in Germany not to go to Southeast Asia," Massing told reporters yesterday in Vietnam. "The chancellor has decided to take this trip to send a signal. He wants to show solidarity with the region."
Aides to the chancellor said he is not taking any extraordinary precautions regarding his health during his tour, though Massing said he consulted with medical experts about SARS before going ahead.
Among Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam and particularly Singapore has been hard hit by SARS, although the situation has improved since last month.
Schroeder's trip was also slightly shortened to allow him to meet US Secretary of State Colin Powell in Berlin on Friday.
During talks with Mahathir, Schroeder was expected to discuss hopes of German industrial giant Siemens to participate in a 7.4 billion ringgit (US$1.95 billion) project to build a 680km stretch of fully electrified railway in Malaysia.
Bilateral trade between the two countries totaled 19.1 billion ringgit (US$5 billion) last year. Germany is Malaysia's largest EU trading partner, and some 300 German companies operate here.