The 17th ASEAN Regional Forum was held in Vietnam on Friday. Apart from the regional representatives, foreign ministers from 17 other countries, such as the US and China took part in Asia's biggest security dialogue.
Foreign ministers and delegates of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)
It was no less than a war of words between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ri Tong Il, the spokesperson for the North Korean delegation in Hanoi. The contentious issues were the sinking of the South Korean warship, Cheonan, in March, that the US and South Korea blame on the North and the upcoming US-South Korea military exercises. Clinton asked North Korea or DPRK to change its "aggressive" behavior. The North's spokesperson, while denying responsibility in the ship incident, said that his country would not tolerate the maneuver.
"It is another expression of hostile policy against the DPRK. And DPRK's position is clear. There will be physical response against the threat imposed by the United States militarily," he said.
US State Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton
ASEAN's limited role
ASEAN nations, for their part, have expressed deep concern over the Cheonan's sinking and the tensions on the Korean peninsula. There is nothing they could do more, says Carl Thayer, an expert on the Southeast Asian affairs at the Australian Defense Force Academy.
"The ASEAN Regional forum can take no position that is compulsory on all members. And ASEAN individual states feel it (Cheonan) is a bilateral issue and they usually abhor using force and threats that they see the US is applying."
Delegates also discussed Myanmar's political process and human rights situation. According to Janos Martonyi, the Hungarian foreign minister, Myanmar is at a crossroads. He called on the country to hold fair elections and release political prisoners.
North Korean Foreign Minister Park Ui Chun
Myanmar and South China Sea
The US, on the other hand also raised concerns over Myanmar's alleged nuclear activities. On Thursday, US Secretary of State Clinton said that North Korea had recently delivered 'military material and equipment' to Myanmar and that it may be helping the military junta develop nuclear weapons. But no concrete resolution emerged from the ASEAN Regional Forum on this issue. "Because we are still lacking the smoking gun, the concrete evidence and at the moment there is a reluctance to accept the US's position," explains Thayer.
The other issue that the US raised was that of territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea. Clinton said resolving this particular issue was key to regional stability. China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore and the Philippines all asserted their claims to resource-rich areas in the South China Sea. While China refrained from raising the matter, the US says the dispute is leading to interference in international maritime commerce and a settlement should therefore be negotiated. Observers believe this, however, is unlikely.
"In 2002 they negotiated a very weak declaration on the conduct of parties. And that initial document was supposed to be the first step towards a code of conduct. From 2002 to 2010, it is eight years, we haven't proceeded. So I don't see a prospect of a binding code of conduct anytime soon," says Thayer.
South China Sea islands are believed to be rich in resources
Influence of the US and China
Over the years China has become an important participant at the ARF meetings. So has the US. Thayer says the focus of US diplomacy is shifting. Under Bush the US administration concentrated more on the global war on terror. Now the Obama administration is showing a greater commitment to Southeastern Asia in response to the Chinese challenge.
"I think during the Bush administration, China made great inroads using soft diplomacy and now the US is playing a multilateral game and that is music to ASEAN’s ears," says Thayer. "ASEAN wants the each super power to come to it rather than the superpowers impacting it."
To enhance its partnerships and bilateral ties, the US is planning to hold a summit for Southeast Asian leaders in Washington later this year.
Author: Disha Uppal
Editor: Grahame Lucas