(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday was to sign a non-aggression pact with a group of Southeast Asian nations, committing the United States to “renunciation of the threat or use of force” and to non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs.
Those countries include Burma, whose military junta has been targeted by U.S. sanctions since 1997, tightened in 2003, 2007 and 2008. Other parties to the pact include North Korea, whose nuclear weapons program, missile development and human rights record have been issues of concern for the U.S. for many years.
The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) to be signed by Clinton in Thailand includes a provision that no party shall “in any manner or form participate in any activity which shall constitute a threat to the political and economic stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of another.”
Drawn up by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1976 and originally dealing only with relations among that grouping’s members, the treaty was amended in the late 1980s to allow countries outside the region to join.
Fifteen non-ASEAN countries have already done so, but the Bush administration demurred, even as China and India signed up in 2003, followed by Russia and South Korea in 2004, and close U.S. ally Australia in 2005.
Clinton is on the Thai island of Phuket for meetings with the 10-member ASEAN group, followed by the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) – a gathering of foreign ministers from ASEAN, the U.S. and 16 other countries.
She said in Bangkok Tuesday that the decision to accede to the TAC was “a very strong statement on behalf of our administration that the United States intends to be a very active presence in the region.”
Implying that U.S. relations with Asia had slipped in recent years, she told reporters, “I want to send a very clear message that the United States is back, that we are fully engaged and committed to our relationships in Southeast Asia, that we want to resume and strengthen our very strong alliances and friendships.”
Impact on existing alliances mulled
Clinton first announced the Obama administration’s intention to sign the pact when she visited Indonesia last February. In late May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a regional security gathering in Singapore that accession negotiations had began, “which demonstrates our willingness to take regional norms into account as we consider our relationships across the globe.”
Some of the countries which have signed the TAC in recent years have only done so after sending ASEAN letters on the side clarifying their interpretation of some of the treaty’s clauses.
These communications have mostly been kept confidential, but former Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s government released the letter it sent to ASEAN weeks before it acceded in mid-2005.
Australia had raised issues in the preceding months including concerns that signing the TAC could affect Canberra’s alliance with the U.S., and stifle any attempts to raise human rights abuses in Burma, an ASEAN member.
The treaty invokes various agreements, including “the Ten Principles adopted by the Asian-African Conference” in 1955. That conference, in Bandung, Indonesia, laid the groundwork for the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement, a grouping of developing nations professing neutrality in the context of the Cold War.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in April 2005 that Australia had a problem with subscribing to the so-called Bandung principles of non-alignment, as it was “unashamedly aligned – we have an alliance with the U.S.”
A further concern was that the pact could affect relations not only between the individual signatory and ASEAN, but also between various non-ASEAN signatories – thus applying to relations between Australia and China, for instance. This issue became even more pertinent when North Korea acceded last year.
In the July 2005 letter to ASEAN, Downer made clear Canberra’s understanding that “Australia’s accession to the Treaty would not affect Australia’s obligations under other bilateral or multilateral agreements.”
It would also have no bearing on Australia’s rights and obligations arising from the United Nations Charter, he said – a reference in particular to the right to self-defense.
“Further, the Treaty will not apply to, nor affect, Australia’s relationships with states outside Southeast Asia,” Downer wrote.
A May 2009 Congressional Research Service report on issues arising from U.S. accession to the TAC raised some of the same considerations.
“The United States is a party to numerous bilateral and multilateral security arrangements, including some which oblige parties to assist in the defense of any party that is attacked,” the authors noted.
On the issue of non-interference, they wrote that some may argue that this would apply to criticism of other countries’ domestic human rights records.
However, they pointed to an Australian government analysis in 2005 which asserted that longstanding state practice made it clear nothing in the TAC would prevent one country from commenting on an issue “of international interest” arising in another.
Signing the TAC did not prevent Australia from tightening sanctions on Burma after the junta’s crackdown on public protests led by Buddhist monks in September 2007.
Burma a persistent problem
Burma (Myanmar) has been a perennial problem for ASEAN since the grouping admitted the country in the late 1990s. Burma’s military rulers back in 1990 had allowed multiparty elections, but when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won they rejected the result and held onto power.
The regime’s suppression of pro-democracy forces has worsened in recent years. At least 30 people were killed during the clampdown on protests in 2007, and this year it put Suu Kyi on trial, accusing her of violating the terms of her house arrest.
What to do about Burma has dominated ASEAN gatherings for years, and the grouping has drawn criticism from the U.S. and others for not taking firm action – sanctions, suspension or expulsion – against the junta.
Whenever the bloc has been challenged, it cites its “non-interference” principle.
The Obama administration has been conducting a review of U.S. policy toward Burma; Clinton said earlier this year that neither sanctions, nor ASEAN’s attempts to engage, have worked.
Burma is expected to feature prominently at the ARF meeting on Thursday.
Also on the agenda is North Korea’s nuclear program, amid U.S. concerns about possible military collaboration between Burma and the reclusive Stalinist state.
The ARF is one of the few international groupings to which North Korea belongs. Previous meetings have sometimes provided opportunities for U.S.-North Korean interaction, although the State Department has not said whether Clinton will meet with North Korean delegates in Thailand.
After a series of missile tests and amid belligerent rhetoric, Pyongyang is sending an official rather than its foreign minister this year.
Representatives of all of the countries involved in the stalled “six-party” nuclear talks – the U.S., Japan, South Korea, China, Russia as well as the North – will be in Phuket.
Relative states of engagement
The Bush administration was criticized when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice skipped the ARF in 2005. The State Department attributed the decision to a scheduling clash, but in the region Rice’s absence was seen as signaling displeasure with ASEAN’s stance on Burma.
Two summers later, Rice missed the gathering again, traveling to the Middle East instead for meetings in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Although on both occasions her deputy attended – Robert Zoellick in 2005 and John Negroponte in 2007 – Rice’s absence prompted reports questioning the U.S. commitment to the region.
Rice was not the first secretary of state to miss an ARF. Warren Christopher skipped the inaugural event, in 1994, which fell in the middle of a bout of Mideast peace shuttling.
President Bush attended the annual summit of a broader Pacific Rim grouping, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), every year during his two terms. President Clinton skipped APEC summits in Japan in 1995 and in Malaysia in 1998, sending Vice President Gore in his place.