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Barack Obama to join ASEAN summit beg for trade in person
November 18, 2012
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Barack Obama to join annual ASEAN summit in Cambodia
November 18, 2012

SOUTHEAST Asian leaders have started annual talks set to focus on territorial rows, a controversial declaration on human rights and deadly ethnic unrest in Myanmar (Burma).

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit started today after months of acrimony within the 10-member bloc over how to handle disputes with China over rival claims in the South China Sea.

The maritime tensions were expected to be high on the agenda at the summit in Cambodia, as well as during two days of expanded talks starting on Monday that will include US President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said the bloc was ready to present a united front to China over the issue, after proposing on Saturday a hotline with its giant Asian neighbour aimed at defusing tensions.

"There is a good intention to push the momentum forward," Surin said in an interview today just ahead of the opening of the talks.

Rival claims to the South China Sea have for decades made the waterways, home to some of the world's most important shipping lanes and believed to sit atop vast natural resources, a potential military flashpoint.

China insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the sea, including waters close to the coasts of its Asian neighbours.

ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, also have sometimes overlapping claims to the sea.

Tensions escalated this year amid complaints by the Philippines and Vietnam that China was becoming increasingly aggressive in staking its claim to the sea, including by employing bullying diplomatic tactics.

An ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Phnom Penh ended in July without issuing a joint communique for the first time in the bloc's 45-year history because of divisions over how to handle the South China Sea issue.

The Philippines and Vietnam had wanted the communique to make specific reference to their disputes with China, but were thwarted by Cambodia, the host of the talks and a close Chinese ally.

In one of the major set pieces for Sunday, ASEAN leaders endorsed a declaration they say will enshrine human right protections for the bloc's 600 million people.

''It's a legacy for our children,'' Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters today after the signing ceremony.

Hun Sen

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers his opening remarks for the 21st ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Picture: AP Source: AP

But critics said it fell well below global standards and slammed the lack of transparency and the absence of consultation with civil society groups during the drafting of the text.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and more than 60 rights groups called this month for the pact to be postponed amid concerns it undermined universal human rights standards by allowing loopholes for governments.

ASEAN's members have a wide range of political systems, from authoritarian regimes in Vietnam and Laos at one end of the spectrum to the freewheeling democracy of the Philippines at the other.

However, drafts of the pact have drawn widespread criticism from human rights groups, which say it allows loopholes for governments.

ASEAN's members have a wide range of political systems, from authoritarian regimes in Vietnam and Laos at one end of the spectrum to the freewheeling democracy of the Philippines at the other.

And even as the rights pact is signed, ASEAN leaders will on Sunday have to focus on violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state between Muslim and Buddhist communities that has left 180 people dead since June.

Surin said ASEAN foreign ministers discussed the violence during meetings on Saturday, the same day as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation branded attacks on the minority Rohingya Muslims as "genocide".

Surin says ASEAN leaders may voice official concern in their end-of-summit statement on Sunday.

Directly before travelling to Phnom Penh, Obama will on Monday make a historic visit to Myanmar to reward and further encourage political developments by the new reformist government there.

Rights groups have also urged him to raise concerns over the violence in Rakhine.

Obama's aides have already said he will raise "grave concerns" in Phnom Penh over Cambodia's rights record and the need for political reform when he meets Prime Minister Hun Sen.

"We'll continue to make clear that we want to see greater political freedom in Cambodia," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy US national security adviser who is travelling with Obama.

ASEAN leaders are also aiming to use the Phnom Penh talks to push forward a planned giant free trade zone with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Negotiations for the free trade area, which would account for roughly half the global population and around a third of the world's annual gross domestic product, are set to be officially launched on Tuesday.

November 18, 2012
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November 17, 2012

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (C) greets Cambodian military officials after arriving on his military aircraft at Siem Reap Airport, for the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Retreat, on November 16.

SIEM REAP, Cambodia (AFP) - US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Friday sought to promote Washington's strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific and a tentative rapprochement with Myanmar as he met counterparts in the region.

The US tilt to Asia reflects a concerted effort by President Barack Obama's administration to assert American influence in the face of China's growing economic and military might.

"The message I have conveyed on this visit is that the United States' rebalance to the Asia-Pacific is real, it is sustainable, and it will be ongoing for a long period of time," Panetta said.

The US is deepening its military engagement with allies in the region, he told reporters after talks with counterparts from the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- including Myanmar -- in Cambodia.

He said the Pentagon would increase the size and number of its defence exercises with its Southeast Asian partners.

Fresh from re-election victory, Obama will arrive in the region next week for a historic visit to Myanmar before joining his top diplomat Hillary Clinton in Cambodia for an Asia-Pacific summit.

Obama will be the first sitting US president ever to go to Myanmar, also known as Burma, following a series of dramatic political changes in the former pariah state, which is emerging from decades of military rule.

Pentagon officials are considering reviving military ties with Myanmar to cooperate on non-lethal programmes focused on medicine, education and disaster relief exercises.

The activities would be "limited in scope" at the outset, said a senior US defence official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"We'll grow as appropriate over time. We need to see reform. We need to see continued progress," the official said.

Myanmar is also expected to be invited to observe Cobra Gold, the largest US multilateral exercise in the Asia-Pacific. It brings together thousands of troops from the US, Thailand and other countries for field training.

Panetta's trip, which included earlier stops in Australia and Thailand, came as China unveiled a new leadership team headed by Xi Jinping.

The overtures to Myanmar's leaders are a source of concern for China, as the country -- along with North Korea -- had remained firmly in Beijing's orbit and off-limits to the Americans until now, analysts and officials said.

"From China's perspective, enhancing US-Burma security ties takes on greater significance because it was one of the few countries in China's periphery that Beijing had a near monopoly on military, economic, and diplomatic relations," said Andrew Scobell, an expert at the US-based RAND Corporation think tank.

"Now, with a US-Burmese rapprochement well under way, China's leaders believe they are being outmuscled by the United States in yet another location around their periphery," he told AFP.

The United States is pushing for a peaceful, multilateral resolution of territorial disputes pitting China against its neighbours over potentially resource-rich waters.

"We want these disputes solved peacefully in accordance with international law but we do take issue with coercion," the unnamed defence official said.

Washington's diplomatic initiatives to Myanmar and Cambodia come despite concerns over human rights in both countries, with US officials lobbying Cambodian leader Hun Sen to end a crackdown on dissidents and protests.
Panetta stressed the need for "the protection of human rights, respect for the rule of law, and for full participation in the political process here in Cambodia and across Southeast Asia".

November 18, 2012
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Gillard set for Phnom Penh summit

November 18, 2012

TRADE, global health issues, finance, education, security and energy will all be on the table when Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard attends the East Asia Summit in Cambodia this week.

Ms Gillard leaves Australia on Monday for Phnom Penh ahead of bilateral meetings and a gala dinner for leaders attending the summit, including US President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

The ASEAN group is made up of 16 nation's.

Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, & Vietnam, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea.

Australia will push for a new regional trade deal at the summit, where 16 leaders are expected to agree to talks on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The RCEP would involve the 10 members of ASEAN plus Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, the Republic of Korea and India.

The agreement would bring together existing ASEAN free-trade agreements, including the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA which is being seen as a benchmark for the broader deal.

The new ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand free trade zone comprising 16 countries - home to half the world's population and accounting for one-third of global gross domestic product was signed on 01 January 2010.

At the Asean Plus Three Summit' Asean leaders and their counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea accepted a report on a feasibility study on the proposed East Asia Free Trade Area (EAFTA).

A separate report on another study on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia (CEPEA) - adding India, Australia and New Zealand to the Asean Plus Three - was submitted at the East Asia Summit.

The ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement will come into force 01 January 2010, following discussion between ASEAN leaders at the East Asia Summit in Thailand late October 2009.

The Free Trade Agreement will establish the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade area, spanning 12 economies and more than 600,000 million people and a combined GDP of US$3.1 trillion. The Agreement covers 20 per cent of Australia's two-way trade, worth US$112 billion and will eliminate tariffs on 90 per cent of Australia's current exports to ASEAN nations by 2020.

Trade Minister Craig Emerson would not put a timeframe on the new agreement.

"Once you put timeframes on the completion of negotiations that haven't yet started you end up being wrong," Dr Emerson said.

"The RCEP proposal ... is one pathway to the mountaintop of a free trade area for Asia and the Pacific and we'll be in there vigorously negotiating for it."

Ms Gillard is expected to meet with Mr Obama and other proponents of another trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, on Tuesday.

Bilateral meetings with leaders from China, Japan, Brunei and Thailand are also likely.

A sharp focus on regional security will be a feature at the summit after annual talks by ASEAN leaders on Sunday.

Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said on Sunday the bloc was ready to present a united front to China about how to deal with tensions about the South China Sea, where rival claims have existed for decades.

China claims sovereign rights to nearly all of the sea but Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims.

Human rights were high on the agenda for ASEAN leaders on the weekend, with the issue of ethnic violence against Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim population in strong focus, along with the development of a human rights declaration for the bloc's 600 million people.

An Australian-led initiative to fight malaria in the region is expected to be adopted by EAS leaders.

The summit wraps up on Tuesday.

November 18, 2012
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Obama lands in Thailand at start of trip

November 18, 2012

US President Barack Obama has started a three-day Southeast Asia tour, hailing alliances with countries such as Thailand as cornerstones of the administration's deeper commitment to the Asia-Pacific region.

While in Asia, however, Obama will be dividing his attention by monitoring the escalating conflict between Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Obama has been in regular contact with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as with Egyptian and Turkish leaders who might hold sway with the Hamas leadership.

Obama landed in Bangkok on Sunday afternoon, his schedule packed with cultural sightseeing, a royal audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a private meeting with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, a joint press conference and an official dinner.

He will also visit Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia in his first trip abroad since winning a second term.
The visit to Thailand, less than 18 hours long, is a gesture of friendship to a long-standing partner and major non-NATO ally.
Still, the two countries have faced strains, most recently after the 2006 military coup that deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and Obama's visit offers an opportunity to restate and broaden the relationship.

"It was very important for us to send a signal to the region that allies are going to continue to be the foundation of our approach" to establishing a more prominent presence in Asia, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters travelling with the president aboard Air Force One.

Obama is also seeking to open new markets for US businesses; the United States is Thailand's third biggest trading partner, behind China and Japan.

Becoming a counterweight to China in the region is a keystone of Obama's so-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.

Obama's trip comes on the heels of meetings in Thailand between Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and his Thai counterparts on security and military co-operation on issues ranging from fighting weapons proliferation to disaster relief to countering piracy.

Alluding to the 2006 coup, Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, said in a speech ahead of the trip last week that Obama would build on Panetta's outreach to reinforce the relationship and "support the continued peaceful restoration of democratic order after a turbulent period."

Obama will visit the Wat Pho Royal Monastery, a cultural must-see in Bangkok, before paying a courtesy call to ailing 86-year-old, US-born King Bhumibol Adulyadej in his hospital quarters.

The king, the longest serving living monarch, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied in Europe.

The centrepiece of the Asia trip comes on Monday when Obama travels to Myanmar, the once reclusive and autocratic state that has begun instituting democratic measures.

Obama has eased sanction on the country, also known as Burma, and his visit will be the first there by a sitting US president.
Obama aides see Myanmar as not only a success story, but also as a signal to other countries that the US will reward democratic behaviour.

"If Burma can continue to succeed in a democratic transition, then that can potentially send a powerful message regionally and around the world ... that if countries do take the right decisions, we have to be there with incentives," Rhodes said.

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