Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Asean Summit: U.S. seeks stronger S.E. Asia presence

Wednesday, 11 July 2012 13:18 Mizzima News

Asean foreign ministers in Cambodia are calling for the U.S. and other countries to remove all sanctions against Burma, as a reward for its moves toward democracy.

Meeting in Cambodia this week for the annual Asean summit, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said Asean deserves credit for encouraging reforms in Burma, and he’s frustrated that international sanctions against Burma have not been removed altogether.

“I think the U.S. and the EU are adopting two separate strategies,” Surin told reporters. “The EU is suspending sanctions, meaning anything can go, but it can be imposed again. The U.S. is relaxing it step by step – so two strategies.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong at the Department of State on June 12, 2012. Photo: State Department

“We appreciate that. But we hope that the pace will be quick and that evolution inside Myanmar will warrant a serious reconsideration of the measures put in place for the sanctions,” he said.

Burma is scheduled to become chair of Asean in 2014, and the annual summit will be held in Naypyitaw.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will arrive in Cambodia from Laos on Wednesday evening, to attend the summit and other meetings and to meet with U.S. businessmen who are attending related conferences.

Clinton will host a large gathering of U.S. business executives in Siem Reap to discuss ways of increasing U.S. exports to the region.

She is also expected to announce what officials said are “very substantial new resources” for nations along the Mekong River.

Her trip is seen as affirming the U.S. re-engagement with Asia, and the strategic and economic importance of Southeast Asia.

The U.S. also wants a presence in the debate going on over competing claims over territorial rights in the South China Sea that pits various S.E. Asia nations against China, which has claimed territorial rights on the sea.

Analysts have warned it will be difficult to obtain a consensus on the issue, in large part because the Southeast Asian nations themselves haven't been able to agree on the best course of action. Vietnam and the Philippines have pressed for a harder line opposing China’s claim, but Thailand and Cambodia have resisted strong steps that would embarrass Chinese leaders. Asean is working to craft a Code of Conduct governing the sea disputes.

Such divisions put the spotlight on other countries, such as Laos and Burma, which are now eyed by the U.S. as potential allies in countering China’s dominance in the Asian region.

“I think the U.S. is worried it doesn't have enough clout within Asean and East Asia as China becomes so significantly important, and so I think they feel a vote is a vote—whether you're the size of Indonesia or the size of Laos, you're still a vote in the Asean environment,” Christopher Bruton, an analyst at Dataconsult Ltd. in Bangkok told the Wall Street Journal in an article on Tuesday.

On Monday, an Asean spokesman said, “They met and they adopted the key elements of the Code of Conduct [for South China Sea disputes] only among the member states, and from now on they will have to start assessments with China.”

The official did not elaborate on the key elements of the Code of Conduct.

On Monday, China said Asean meetings are “not an appropriate venue for discussing the South China Sea.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters in Beijing, in response to a question over U.S. concerns about a code of conduct in the waters. “Intentional stirring up of the issue is ignoring the nations striving for development, intentionally kidnapping the relationship between China and Asean.”

Clinton, speaking in Tokyo on July 8, said, “We have a national interest, as every nation does, in the freedom of navigation, in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, and unimpeded, lawful commerce in the South China Sea. Therefore we believe the nations of the Asia Pacific region should work collaboratively and diplomatically to resolve their disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats, and without conflict.”

In Cambodia, Clinton will also promote the Lower Mekong Initiative, launched by the U.S. in 2009 to boost development in Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam by investments in education, infrastructure and the environment.

“This is a watershed moment for Burma and the United States stands ready to facilitate economic engagement,” David Adelman, the U.S. ambassador to Singapore, who will lead a trade mission to Burma in August, told the Bloomberg news website on Tuesday.

China is now the Asean blocks largest trading partner, accounting for 11.3 per cent of Asean’s total trade in 2010, compared with 9.1 per cent for the U.S., according to Asean. In 2000, U.S. trade represented 16 percent of Asean’s total, compared with 4 percent for China.

However, trade between the U.S. and China is No. 1 in Asia. The U.S. traded $503 billion in goods with China in 2011, more than two-and-a-half times the combined $194 billion traded with Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and other Asean nations, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Analysts said Clinton’s current initiatives in S.E. Asia send a message to China that while each is a strong trading partner with the other, the U.S. will work to retain its traditional role and influence in the region. Increasingly, the U.S. sees itself playing a mediating role in the region in disputes involving Asia and China.

Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia securities expert at the University of New South Wales, told Voice of American on Tuesday that Clinton will stress that the Obama administration is not only focused on the region for military purposes.

“The rebalancing we're going to hear is economic engagement with the region and America's interest in education, health promotion, environmental and water management along the Mekong [River], that there are a whole raft of other issues that the U.S. is going to be engaged with to rebalance, so that the view that the U.S. is only interested in military confrontation with China is a second component of the rebalancing,” said Thayer.

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