US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared close relations with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are a 'central pillar' of the US' renewed foreign policy push in the Asia-Pacific region.
Clinton, who arrived in the Cambodian capital late Wednesday, made the comments at diplomatic talks in Phnom Penh, which have been marked by maritime disputes in the region.
She told ASEAN foreign ministers that the 10-member bloc - consisting of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam - had an "indispensable role" in holding the region together.
"We work with ASEAN on the issues that are of central importance to the United States: from maritime security to non-proliferation to economic growth," she said.
The positions ASEAN takes, the decisions it makes and how it makes them "will have a great bearing on the future effectiveness of ASEAN."
Clinton added that she was looking forward to discussing "next steps" regarding recent reform efforts by member state Myanmar with the ministers. Overnight Washington said it would ease restrictions on US businesses investing in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, in a step that will be welcomed by ASEAN.
Clinton arrived in Phnom Penh after visiting Laos - the first US secretary of state to do so in 57 years - where she met with the communist country's Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong and Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith in the capital Vientiane.
She is scheduled to attend the ASEAN East Asia Summit and Regional Forum on Thursday before visiting Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia on Friday, leading a large US business delegation.
Officials from 26 nations including the US, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand and Russia, as well as the European Union, are scheduled for talks this week in Cambodia, which holds the rotating ASEAN chair in 2012.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba met on the sidelines of the ASEAN gathering on Wednesday, as the two nations grapple with a territorial dispute over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
A statement on the website of the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh said Yang reaffirmed China's "principled position" in the meeting, and "stressed that Diaoyu Islands and their affiliated islets have always been China's territory since ancient times, over which China has indisputable sovereignty."
Japan on Wednesday reportedly summoned the Chinese Ambassador in Tokyo after three Chinese boats approached the islands. In Japanese the islands are called the Senkaku Islands and according to "historical fact" and "international law" were an entity of Japan, Koichiro Gemba said at the meeting.
"There is no doubt that the Senkaku Islands are part of Japanese territory, so there is no dispute," Naoko Saiki, a spokesperson for the Japanese foreign ministry, told DW.
Sea dispute lingers
Sideline talks on the East China Sea come as ASEAN member states continue prickly discussions about the contested South China Sea.
China and Taiwan, along with ASEAN member states Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Brunei, all claim territory in the waters, which are key shipping routes and are also believed to be rich in untapped resources. Recent confrontations between China and the Philippines, and China and Vietnam, have heightened tensions there.
At an ASEAN summit in April, member states appeared to diverge over how best to include China in discussions on a potential code of conduct (COC) to guide behavior in the sea. ASEAN and China had agreed in 2002 to work toward implementing such a code.
A senior Cambodian official said on Monday that ASEAN foreign ministers had adopted "key elements" of a draft COC, and needed to begin talks with China.
After a joint meeting on Wednesday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying said in a press briefing posted on the Chinese Embassy's website that the Chinese side hoped to be able to start discussions on a COC "when conditions are ripe."
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters on Wednesday that the diplomatic process for a draft COC was "very much on track."
"There is a parallel process - parallel and yet interlinked - on how to capture ASEAN's views on (…) the recent worrying developments in the South China Sea," he said.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan noted on Wednesday that the world was "paying attention" to ASEAN on the issue of the South China Sea.
"The world is expecting some soothing message - message of confidence, message of hope - out of here that we are indeed working together in order to manage the situation," he told reporters.
In the past, the US has said that disputes in the South China Sea should be dealt with peacefully and through diplomatic channels.
Author: Mary Kozlovski
Editor: Sarah Berning