U.S. Steps Up Commitment To Southeast Asia

Secretary Clinton with ASEAN foreign ministers i

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton poses with Southeast Asia foreign ministers in Thailand after signing a friendship treaty. Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images
Secretary Clinton with ASEAN foreign ministers

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton poses with Southeast Asia foreign ministers in Thailand after signing a friendship treaty.

Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday issued what she called "a strong statement" of U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia by signing a commitment to peacefully resolve disputes in the region.

The signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation marks a big change in U.S. engagement with the region since the Vietnam War, and emphasizes Washington's focus as the region comes increasingly under the economic influence of China.

It comes during Clinton's visit to Thailand for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit.

Clinton used the forum to warn North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program or face further isolation through international sanctions. She also appealed to the military rulers of Myanmar to release imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, offering the prospects of future U.S. investment if the nation also known as Burma cooperates.

The ASEAN summit has become increasingly important to the U.S. and to Southeast Asia. Here's more about the alliance:

What Is ASEAN?

An association of 10 member countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

It was formed in 1967, during the Vietnam War, by five original members, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand as a forum for resolving disputes among member nations.

Today, ASEAN is increasingly seen as a potential economic force. As of 2006, ASEAN members boasted a regional population of around 560 million people, with a combined gross domestic product of almost $1.1 trillion.

What Is The ASEAN Regional Forum?

The forum is a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers to focus on security concerns ahead of a summit of ASEAN leaders scheduled for October. Because Thailand holds the rotating chairmanship of the organization for this year, the meeting is being held on the Thai resort island of Phuket. Representatives of other nations are also taking part, including Clinton.

What Are Some Key U.S. Interests At This Meeting?

Clinton has already raised subjects high on the agenda: North Korea's nuclear ambitions and the prospect that North Korea may be forging military ties to Myanmar. A ship thought to be en route from North Korea to Myanmar last month mysteriously turned back, after it came under international scrutiny.

The U.S. and other nations fear that North Korea may be trying to sell missile or even nuclear technology to Myanmar's ruling junta.

Challenges For ASEAN

One of ASEAN's biggest problems, says Muthiah Alagappa, a senior fellow at the East-West Center, is that it has operates by consensus and has a strict policy against interfering in the internal affairs of its members. That, he says, often results in policies that reflect "the lowest common denominator."

Alagappa says that limits the alliance's ability to deal with issues like human rights and pollution.

Alagappa says lack of consensus is preventing the organization from dealing with its most severe environmental problem, the cloud of brown haze that often chokes parts of Malaysia and Singapore. The haze comes from the smoke of slash-and-burn farming practices and forest fires in Indonesia.

ASEAN's inability to intervene in the internal affairs of members, Alagappa says, means that "even very non-intrusive measures have not been implemented to control the haze."

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