BALI, Indonesia (AP) — Asian nations moved on Friday to defuse two critical points of tension in the Pacific, in preliminary steps welcomed by the Obama administration, which is moving to reassert U.S. influence in the region.
On the sidelines of a Southeast Asian regional security conference in Bali, Indonesia, China and its neighbors reached a draft agreement to peacefully resolve competing territorial claims in the strategic South China Sea while North and South Korea agreed to resume talks. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton commended Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for the deal and expressed cautious hope that discussion between Seoul and Pyongyang could help relaunch stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations with the North.
"I want to commend China and ASEAN for working so closely together to include implementation guidelines for the declaration of conduct in the South China Sea," Clinton told Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the meeting.
Yang said he believed the agreement would go "a long way" in promoting "peace and stability" in the resource-rich South China Sea, through which one-third of the world's shipping passes. "This will of course provide favorable conditions for the proper handling and settlement of disputes among claimants," he said.
China, which claims sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, has been accused in recent months of trying to intimidate oil exploration by the Philippines and Vietnam in waters that are partially claimed also by those two countries and Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia. Beijing long has resisted calls for a binding code of conduct that would require disputes in the waterway to be solved peacefully and without threats of violence.
Last year, Clinton raised Beijing's ire by saying resolution to the disputes was a U.S. national security interest because of Washington's desire to guarantee navigational safety and maritime security in the South China Sea. She made the matter a central point of her participation in the East Asia Summit hosted by Vietnam, something that U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to restate when he attends that event this year.
U.S. officials are keen to see the deal implemented but warned that much more work needed to be done. Clinton said she would lay out U.S. ideas for making it work in a speech to the forum on Saturday. "It's an important first step," Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia, told reporters. "It has lowered tensions. It has improved the atmosphere. But clearly it is just that, a first step, and we're going to need to see some follow-up actions between China and ASEAN."
The Clinton-Yang meeting appeared friendly, which was seen as unusual given that Beijing just last week angrily condemned the White House meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, which China claims as a province. The matter was not mentioned in public, although a Chinese spokesman said afterward that Yang had raised the importance of respecting China's "sovereignty and territorial integrity," including Tibet.
The U.S. and China are also both major players with significant stakes in the resumption of dialogue between North and South Korea and six-nation talks aimed at convincing the North to give up its nuclear weapons program.
On that front, North Korea on Friday announced it had appointed a new top envoy to the six-party talks that include the North and the South, China, Japan, Russia and the United States. And, the North and South agreed to hold a working-level meeting on the sidelines of the annual ASEAN Regional Forum on Friday, their first public discussion in months. The North, which stands to get badly needed aid and other concessions if it returns to the six-party talks, has indicated in recent months that it might be ready.
North Korea's main ally, China, has been pressing for a speedy resumption in the six-nation disarmament talks but the U.S. and others have held out, saying that meaningful North-South dialogue must occur first. A senior U.S. official said Washington was pleased to see the North and South getting together again but said it would take several days to determine whether the rapprochement was enough to warrant a return to the table.
Clinton told Yang she was eager to discuss with him "our mutual desire for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula" but offered no hint on whether the U.S. would agree to resume the nuclear talks.
Yang, however, signaled China's intense interest in getting things back on track.
"We need to work together," he said. "Anything we can do together to promote better atmosphere and good dialogue among the parties concerned and to work together to restart the six-party talks would be in the best interests of peace, stability and security of the region."
The disarmament talks have been stalled since 2008, when North Korea walked out to protest international criticism of a prohibited long-range rocket launch. Tensions between the North and South have remained testy ever since.
Clinton's other main agenda item is seeking ASEAN action on Myanmar. The country, also known as Burma, held elections late last year, officially handing power to a civilian administration after a half-century of military rule and releasing pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. But many see the changes as cosmetic and believe the army will continue to hold sway.
The Obama administration had sought to engage Myanmar to improve conditions, but the policy has produced little concrete results and Washington has not eased sanctions on the country. The senior U.S. official said the administration would be looking to ASEAN to press Myanmar on rights but more importantly wanted the country's new leaders to dramatically shift policy and show an interest in engaging the United States. Clinton underscored those points following a separate sideline meeting, calling Myanmar "a challenge."
"We need ASEAN's help to persuade Naypyidaw to take reciprocal steps to seriously engage with the international community and address its concerns," she said, referring the capital of the country. She called for the unconditional release of more than 2,000 political prisoners and dialogue with the opposition and ethnic minorities, including Aung San Suu Kyi. She also demanded that Myanmar respect UN resolutions barring trade in sensitive military goods with North Korea.
"The choices is clear," Clinton said. "They can take these steps and gain back the confidence of their people and the trust of the international community or they can continue down the path they've been on."