Clinton headed back to Hanoi as State Department steps up its Southeast Asia engagement

Clinton headed back to Hanoi as State Department steps up its Southeast Asia engagement

Dozens of Indonesian officials are walking the halls of the State Department today, as the Obama administration’s most comprehensive set of U.S.-Indonesia discussions take place.

These discussions are part of what the administration bills as its increased engagement with Southeast Asia. "We’re not only deepening and broadening our relationship, but what we’re doing together has implications for everyone else," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as she stood alongside Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. The leaders inaugurated the Joint U.S.-Indonesian Commission, the next step in the comprehensive partnership announced by President Obama and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last year.

On Thursday, six sets of U.S.-Indonesia working groups hammered out plans to cooperate on a range of issues including education, climate and the environment, and democracy.

Meanwhile, the Obama team is ramping up its presence in Southeast Asia, following high-level visits recently by Clinton to the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi and Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ trip to the Shangri-la conference in Singapore in May. Several more senior-level visits are planned this autumn.

Obama will attend the ASEAN summit in Jakarta next year, Clinton said. She also announced Thursday in remarks with Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd that she will travel to Hanoi in October to attend the East Asia Summit, a new multilateral structure that the United States plans to join.

"I was influenced by Kevin Rudd’s very strong argument on behalf of an Asian-Pacific community," Clinton said. "So in addition to deepening our commitment to ASEAN, we began the process of exploring the opportunity for the United States to join the East Asia Summit."

Clinton also announced that she and Gates will go to Australia in November to participate in the ministerial-level dialogue they had to cancel in January due to the Haiti earthquake. We’re also told by multiple administration sources that Obama is considering adding Indonesia to his November trip to India, but as of yet no final decision has been made. (Obama has cancelled two planned trips to Indonesia so far.)

The next important step in Obama’s diplomatic outreach will come when he meets with leaders  from all ten ASEAN countries at the U.S.-ASEAN summit next week in New York, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. The Obama administration can be expected to tackle two premier regional issues in those meetings: how to handle Chinese claims of ownership of the South China Sea, and how to deal with the Burmese regime in the lead up to the country’s November elections.

Clinton shocked the Chinese by announcing during her last visit to Hanoi that the United States will stand up for the principle of resolving disputes in the South China Sea through multilateral mechanisms and that no one country could set maritime policy.

That issue is not formally on the agenda at next week’s summit, but everybody expects it to come up.

"This is an issue that concerns freedom of navigation, this is an issue that concerns lawful exploitation of maritime resources," said a State Department official, speaking on background basis. "I think it might very well be [a topic at the summit]."

The other main issue at the upcoming summit is what to do about Burma. The military junta is sending its foreign minister amid grave concerns by the U.S. administration that the regime is preparing to hold an election that does not meet basic standards of fairness and legitimacy.

"What we have seen to date leads us to believe that these elections will lack international legitimacy," Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said in May. The State Department official said that there has been no attempt to rethink the Burma engagement policy the administration rolled out last year, and that the search for a Special Envoy for Burma continues.

The U.S. has been calling for ASEAN to get tougher with Burma, but don’t expect strong criticism to come from Indonesia.

"It’s how you want to see it, half empty or half full," Natalegawa said about the Burmese elections Friday morning at the Center for International Studies in Washington. He said the Indonesian government was still waiting to see if the junta will live up to its commitment to hold free and fair elections.

"We hope that the election in Myanmar [the name for Burma the regime has used since 1989]… can be part of a process of change in Myanmar toward democratization as they themselves have committed to."