Senior U.S. officials say the United States intends to boost its relationship with ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, after strained ties during the Bush administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to join foreign ministers of other Pacific-rim countries in a dialogue with their ASEAN counterparts Wednesday on the Thai resort island of Phuket.
The State Department already has a full-time coordinator for relations with ASEAN - currently Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Scot Marciel.
But senior U.S. officials traveling with Secretary Clinton say the Obama administration intends to boost its diplomatic profile with the increasingly-influential grouping by assigning a permanent ambassador to the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta.
ASEAN officials had been critical of the Bush administration for what they saw as neglect of relations with Southeast Asia, noting that former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice missed two out of the last three ASEAN regional forums, which over the years had been an obligatory stop for chief U.S. diplomats.
At a Bangkok news conference on the eve of her arrival at the ASEAN forum, Secretary Clinton served notice that the Obama administration is re-engaging with the region.
"I want to send a very clear message that the United States is back, that we are fully engaged and committed to our relationships in Southeast Asia, that we want to resume and strengthen our very strong alliances and friendships," Clinton said. "We want new partnerships, and it is an important part of our overall approach to participate in ASEAN, which is an essential organization co-founded by among others Thailand to bring the countries of Southeast Asia together."
Clinton is expected to formally announce in Phuket that the United States will become a party to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which calls for the peaceful resolution of disputes among Southeast Asian states and non-interference in their affairs.
A growing number of non-ASEAN countries, most recently Japan and Pakistan, have joined the treaty. Bush administration officials had considered the step unnecessary and a possible hindrance to U.S. diplomatic freedom of action.
In an opinion column in the Bangkok Post newspaper on Tuesday, Clinton wrote that the United States is committed to active partnerships in Asia and that the "tragic" terrorist attacks last Friday on two Jakarta hotels are a reminder that no nation can meet today's global challenges - like the economic crisis, climate change and violent extremism - alone.
Senior U.S. officials say the Obama administration intends to seek a comprehensive partnership with Indonesia, like the one Clinton sealed with India earlier this week, although without the nuclear cooperation component of the India dialogue.
The forum in Phuket will include the foreign ministers of the 10 ASEAN countries along with Clinton, and their counterparts from a dozen other countries outside the region.
North Korea is sending a senior diplomat, but not its foreign minister. U.S. officials say Clinton has no plans to meet the North Korean envoy, but that other members of the U.S. delegation may have contact with him.