BY DAN ROBINSON – U.S. President Barack Obama has held talks with Asian leaders attending the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia.
Obama’s purpose on this Asia-Pacific trip has been to signal that the U.S. is “here to stay” as a Pacific power, intent on strengthening its political, economic and strategic engagement with the region.
But the U.S. is also encouraging the steadily increasing economic and security stake that India, the world’s largest democracy, has in the Pacific. Thus the first bilateral meeting on Obama’s schedule was with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Obama said both nations see the East Asia Summit as “the premier arena” to work together on issues ranging from maritime security and nonproliferation to expanded cooperation on disaster relief and humanitarian assistance.
Prime Minister Singh gave a diplomatically upbeat assessment of relations. He also said India’s parliament will soon consider liability laws to address the concerns of America nuclear power companies, which have held up the implementation of the two countries’ civilian nuclear deal.
“Therefore we have gone some ways to respond to the concerns of the American companies,” said Singh. “And within the four concerns of the law of the land, we are willing to address any specific grievance.”
Obama also met with the leaders of the Philippines and Malaysia, and later with host nation Indonesia, before joining the U.S.-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) meeting and an East Asia Summit dinner.
Before any of the day’s carefully-staged diplomatic events, President Obama was able to point to a major $22 billion deal involving the sale of more than 200 Boeing Company passenger jets to Indonesia’s largest domestic carrier Lion Air. The deal would support some 110,000 jobs in the United States.
But the big story Friday was the president’s announcement of a major new diplomatic outreach to Burma, dominated for decades by the military but moving in recent months toward political reform.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Burma next month to “explore” possibilities for improving relations. With Clinton by his side, he called it an opportunity for Burma’s government to demonstrate it is serious about reform.
“We remain concerned about Burma’s closed political system, its treatment of minorities, and holding of political prisoners and its relationship with North Korea,” said Obama. “But we want to seize what could be a historic opportunity for progress and make it clear that if Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform it can forge a new relationship with the United States of America.”
Obama said he would deliver the same messages to Burma’s President Thein Sein during Friday’s U.S-ASEAN meeting. ASEAN leaders have approved Burma to head the 10-member organization in 2014.
Senior White House officials said Secretary Clinton is scheduled to arrive in Burma on December 1 and spend two days meeting with government and civil society leaders, and with Aung San Suu Kyi.
The president said he had his first conversation with Burmese opposition leader and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, while he was flying to Bali from Australia, saying they reviewed progress in Burma.
Obama said Burma’s government has taken positive steps to open the political process, loosen media restrictions and release some political prisoners. He said Aung San Suu Kyi supported U.S. engagement aimed at moving the reform process forward.
President Obama came to Bali after a visit to Australia during which the countries announced a major enhancement of their 60 year security alliance and a plan to substantially increase U.S. military access to Australian bases.
That agreement, which brought a cool reaction from China, along with regional concerns about China’s security assertiveness and tensions over rival claims to the South China Sea, form the backdrop for this East Asia Summit.