Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has moved to upgrade U.S. relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. At a regional forum with ASEAN foreign ministers, she again pressed member country Burma to release imprisoned democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The American relationship with ASEAN had sagged under the Bush administration. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - preoccupied with other issues - missed two of the previous three ASEAN forums that have traditionally been obligatory events for U.S. chief diplomats.
But Clinton came to the ASEAN meeting with an large interagency team from the Obama administration and declared here that "the United States is back in Southeast Asia."
Clinton signed ASEAN's Treaty on Amity and Cooperation, a document committing participants to peaceful settlements of disputes and non-interference in domestic affairs, which had been shelved by the previous administration.
She also said the United States will name a permanent ambassador to the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta and seek what she termed a "comprehensive partnership" with host country Indonesia.
Clinton announced the moves at an ASEAN press event at which she renewed criticism of ASEAN member Burma, the only military-run country in the group, which she said is moving in the "opposite direction" from its regional partners on democracy and human rights.
She urged Burma's ASEAN colleagues to press the Burmese leadership to open up the country's economy and political system, and said the release of jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi would bring the country quick benefits.
"It is so critical that she be released from this persecution that she has been under," said Clinton. "And if she were released, that would open up opportunities, at least for my country, to expand our relationship with Burma, including investments in Burma. But it is up to the Burmese leadership. And we can only hope that perhaps in the conversation that are occurring between many other countries and representatives of Burma that are here today, there will be progress."
The Obama administration began a review of U.S. Burma policy that includes a near-total trade ban on that country. But it has put the re-examination on hold, pending the outcome of the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, who faces a prison term for violating terms of her long-time house arrest.
Clinton has expressed concern about possible military cooperation between Burma and North Korea, and in a Bangkok television appearance she said the expulsion of Burma from ASEAN would be "an appropriate policy change to consider."
Aung San Suu Kyi has been under various forms of detention most of the time since 1990 when her National League for Democracy won national elections, but was barred from taking power by the military. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Clinton, on the final day of a week-long Asia trip Thursday, will have an unprecedented joint meeting with foreign ministers of the lower Mekong River region - Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.