LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: The U.S. is trying to strengthen its presence in Asia by building ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended ASEAN's summit this past week in Bali, Indonesia, where she claimed some modest successes on territorial disputes in the South China Seas and on nuclear talks with North and South Korea.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Bali.

ANTHONY KUHN: After three days of talks here, Secretary of State Clinton noted that tensions over the South China Sea issue have eased since last year, thanks in part to nonbinding guidelines which 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.

Secretary Clinton said no country should stake its territorial claims by force.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): 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.

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

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

MARTY NATALEGAWA: 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. We are just not equipped for that purpose.

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

DAVID CARDEN: 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.

KUHN: 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. 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.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Bali.

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