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Sun July 24, 2011
Asia

U.S. Strengthens Ties To Asian Regional Grouping

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is claiming some modest successes after several days of talks with Asian leaders in Bali, Indonesia. The issues that stood out included territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Myanmar and North Korea.

After three days of talks, Clinton noted that tensions over the South China Sea issue have eased since last year, thanks in part to nonbinding guidelines that China and ASEAN approved Thursday to handle the dispute.

In recent months, the Philippines has accused China of harassing its oil exploration ships, while Vietnam has accused it of beating up its fisherman. China admits there were incidents, but in Chinese waters. Clinton said no country should stake its territorial claims by force.

"The numbers have been increasing of intimidation actions, of rammings, of cutting of cables, the kinds of things which will raise the cost of doing business for everyone who travels through the South China Sea, which is half of all global commerce," Clinton said.

China claims 80 percent of the South China Seas as its territory.

Bloc Seeks Expanded Role

Whatever institution eventually sorts out the overlapping claims, it won't be ASEAN, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said.

"It's impossible for a forum like the ASEAN Regional Forum, made up of 27 or so countries, to be the forum that actually nitty-gritty in actual detail solve the problem," he said. "We are just not equipped for that purpose."

ASEAN has little capacity to enforce its decisions, or even keep member states such as Thailand and Cambodia from fighting. But it aspires to be the linchpin of Asia's security architecture, and the U.S. is strengthening its ties to the group.

David Carden, who assumed his post in April as the U.S.' first resident ambassador to ASEAN, says that this week's meetings have yielded progress on global issues that will take patience and years of work to resolve.

"The mere fact that the conversations took place, the fact that there are future conversations that are being planned, the fact that this entire collection of conversations that ASEAN brings together is I think the real to thing to focus upon in terms of what's been accomplished over the course of the last several days," Carden said.

North Korea, Myanmar

On Friday, ASEAN did manage to bring together North and South Korean nuclear negotiators, who promised to restart stalled six-party nuclear disarmament talks. The meeting failed to produce a consensus on Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, which is due to take ASEAN's rotating chairmanship in 2014.

Clinton has indicated that this would not be a good idea, unless Myanmar's current administration can make room for political opposition, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

"We have called on the newly elected government to release political prisoners, open a meaningful dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, and we will continue to press for the kind of changes that we see benefiting the people of Burma," she said.

ASEAN itself is divided over Myanmar. While countries such as Thailand want to invest in Myanmar's natural resources, others such as the Philippines insist that real political reforms must come first.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.