China looms over US-ASEAN summit

NEW YORK, September 25, 2010 (AFP) - US President Barack Obama on Friday said Southeast Asia had increasing sway on the world stage, at a time of flaring regional tensions over maritime territorial disputes with a rising China.

At a New York summit, Obama said the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had the potential for true world leadership, pressing home his plan of rebuilding US power in the dynamic region.

Both sides agreed on the importance of "peaceful resolution of disputes" and "freedom of navigation" including in the South China Sea, a reference to tensions between several ASEAN members and Beijing over territorial claims.

The summit also took place at a time of aggravated Chinese tensions with traditional rival and cornerstone US-ally Japan over a separate territorial dispute in the East China Sea.

China had warned the United States ahead of the summit between ASEAN and Washington not to get involved in the row over the potentially resource-rich Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea which Bejing claims.

However, ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, plus non-member Taiwan have competing claims.

There was no mention in a US statement on the talks, nor a joint communique of a call made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in July for multilateral talks on regional security rows -- an idea China opposes.

Opening the talks, Obama made clear he saw Asia as a vital plank of his foreign policy.

"As president, I've... made it clear that the United States intends to play a leadership role in Asia," Obama said.

"So we've strengthened old alliances, we've deepened new partnerships, as we are doing with China, and we've reengaged with regional organizations, including ASEAN," Obama said at the summit at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

Obama also confirmed he would attend the East Asia summit next year in Jakarta as he presses home a strategy of enhancing US influence in the dynamic region, which he believes has been neglected by recent American policy.

"ASEAN countries are increasingly playing a leadership role in the region. ASEAN itself has the potential to be a very positive force in global affairs," Obama said.

Vietnam's President Nguyen Minh Triet said ASEAN was keen to take its relations with Washington to "the next level" to sustain peace, stability and development in the region.

On the economic front, the two sides agreed to work together to expand a burgeoning trading relationship -- two way ASEAN-US trade in goods reached 84 billion dollars in the first six months of this year, a rise of 28 percent over last year.

They also discussed counter-terrorism and efforts to halt narcotics trafficking, pledged to fight against nuclear proliferation and reaffirmed the need for peaceful solutions to the Iran and North Korea nuclear challenges.

The White House also said that Obama raised the issue of Myanmar at the talks, after Washington admitted it was disappointed with its efforts to use dialogue to promote democratic change in the military-ruled state.

"The president believes in the importance of democratic reform and protection of human rights and renews his call on Burma to embark on a process of national reconciliation," the US statement said.

Obama called for the release of all political prisoners including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and for free and fair elections in November.

In the communique, ASEAN leaders also called for free elections, and welcomed US engagement with Myanmar, hoping it would encourage the military government to undertake political and economic reforms.

On Thursday, Obama announced that he would visit Indonesia in November, after being forced to cancel two previous attempts to make the trip to the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.

The visit will follow a stop in India and come before Obama heads to South Korea and Japan.

Friday's New York meeting follows the inaugural summit that Obama held last year in Singapore with his counterparts from 10-member ASEAN.

Next month, in a further deepening of US ties with the region, Clinton will attend this year's East Asia Security summit in Hanoi.

ASEAN includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The East Asia summit groups ASEAN with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.