2010/09/04

Obama to meet ASEAN leaders in New York

WASHINGTON, September 4, 2010 (AFP) - President Barack Obama will meet Southeast Asian leaders this month in New York, the White House said Friday, as the United States tries to bolster its role in a region faced with a rising China.

The White House said that Obama would hold talks with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in New York on September 24, at the time of the annual United Nations General Assembly.

The summit, whose date was earlier confirmed to AFP by a senior official, will mark Obama's latest attempt to reinvigorate US policy towards the dynamic region that he said was neglected by ex-president George W. Bush's team.

The New York meeting will follow the inaugural summit that Obama held last year in Singapore with his counterparts from ASEAN.

In Singapore, "the president and the ASEAN leaders pledged to deepen cooperation in a number of areas of common concern including trade and investment, regional security, disaster management, food and energy security, and climate change," a White House statement said.

"The president looks forward to working with the leaders to assess the progress on these issues, identify future efforts to strengthen US-ASEAN relations, and discuss multilateral approaches for greater regional cooperation," it said.

But the upcoming meeting -- like many at ASEAN -- may risk being overshadowed by controversy over Myanmar, whose military regime is going ahead with November 7 elections despite wide concern over their credibility.

Washington-based diplomats said that the White House held prolonged negotiations with ASEAN leaders on where to hold the summit.

Some Southeast Asian officials preferred a summit in Washington, believing it would carry greater weight and not be seen as one of the myriad "sideline" meetings held each year on the edges of the UN General Assembly.

But the diplomats said that the White House found it was logistically more practical to meet in New York -- and worried about giving too much legitimacy to Myanmar just ahead of the controversial polls.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton first spoke of the second ASEAN summit when she visited Vietnam in July, saying that ASEAN and the related ASEAN Regional Forum were "strong, effective architecture for security and prosperity in Asia."

In Hanoi, Clinton called for open access to the South China Sea -- an area of growing tension between China and Southeast Asian nations, particularly Vietnam. China rebuked Clinton for her remarks.

Ernie Bower, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, said that the second summit would further reassure ASEAN of US commitment.

"That's the bottom line purpose," Bower said.

"It institutionalizes the meeting, which is important both to ASEAN countries and to us because we can't be effective in Asian regional organizations unless we have a balanced engagement with Southeast Asia along the lines of other players like China, Japan and (South) Korea," he said.

However, he said that Myanmar would also likely be a headline issue in the talks.

At the inaugural summit in Singapore, Obama urged Myanmar's Prime Minister Thein Sein to free all political prisoners including the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, but to no avail.

The Obama administration last year launched an engagement effort aimed at bringing Myanmar, also known as Burma, out of its isolation. But US officials have been increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress.

The administration has also moved to build relations with Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, and sought to forge ahead in historically fraught relationships with communist Vietnam and Laos.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.