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Southeast Asian leaders Thursday opened talks on the Indonesian island of Bali where they are expected to tackle a maritime dispute with China and reward Burma for fledgling reforms.
With the eurozone lurching through a debt crisis, raising the spectre of the region’s export markets drying up, there will also be pressure on the 10-member bloc to speed up the integration of its potentially huge common market.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) talks will widen Saturday into the East Asia Summit which takes in Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, and this year welcomes the United States and Russia.
US President Barack Obama’s trip to Bali, the tourist island hosting the summits, will come as Washington rolls out a diplomatic campaign to assert itself as a Pacific power.
But the foreign policy initiative, which smaller Asian nations welcome as a counterbalance to China, has already caused friction with the two powers trading criticisms and warnings in recent days.
The US has signalled it will raise the issue of China’s territorial claims over the South China Sea, with its strategic shipping lanes and rich oil and mineral reserves, despite Beijing saying the topic should be off-limits.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday on a visit to the Philippines, which along with Vietnam has complained China is becoming more aggressive in asserting its claims, that threats were unacceptable.
“Any nation with a claim has a right to exert it, but they do not have a right to pursue it through intimidation or coercion,” she said.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in an opening speech at the summit: “We must ensure the stability and security of our region.
“ASEAN must continue to play a proactive role to facilitate and engage itself in the resolution of issues,” he said in an apparent reference to the South China Sea.
The resort island, normally a haven for tourism and relaxation, has been transformed for the event, with six warships patrolling off the beaches and 7,000 police and soldiers providing a blanket security presence.
The ASEAN summit also sees the diplomatic debut of Burma’s new military-backed government, which has surprised observers with a string of conciliatory moves since it was sworn in eight months ago.
The leaders are set to formally approve a plan to allow Burma to chair the regional bloc in 2014, despite objections from the United States, which maintains heavy sanctions against the country.
Rights campaigners are also concerned that handing Burma the diplomatic prize could remove the incentive for more fundamental change in a nation still accused of serious rights abuses.
The new government has held direct talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, freed 200 dissidents, frozen work on an unpopular mega-dam and passed a law giving workers the right to strike.
But hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars and critics say much more must be done.
“I don’t think the international community should be fooled by these small steps, and should ensure larger steps are put in place,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
ASEAN’s leaders will also review stuttering progress on an ambitious plan for a common, barrier-free market by 2015, a task made more urgent by the crisis in major export markets in Europe.
The gaps between the region’s economies — which range from the wealthy city-state of Singapore to underdeveloped Laos and Burma — are a formidable barrier to establishing a common market of more than 600 million people.
But Indonesian Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan said Wednesday that the economic woes in Europe and the United States presented an opportunity for ASEAN to “behave more collectively”.