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ASEAN: Can US open door to Asia trade by softening stance on China?

Following the lead of its ASEAN partners, the US has replaced tough talk about China with calls for cooperation. At stake is a share of the booming trade supplying a rising consumer class in Southeast Asia.

By Staff writer / July 10, 2012

China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi attends the 13th ASEAN Plus Three Foreign Minister's meeting at the office of the Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh Tuesday.

Samrang Pring/Reuters

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Washington

Concerned that the United States is missing out on the boom in trade serving a burgeoning consumer middle class across much of Southeast Asia, the Obama administration is busy fine-tuning its famous “pivot to Asia.”

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Out is the administration’s focus of recent years on security issues, with its emphasis on a rising China and on letting China’s neighbors know that the US intends to remain a Pacific military power ready to counter any country’s aggressive actions in the region.

In is a broadened policy that gives more weight to America’s economic and business interests in countries from Vietnam to Malaysia – and that puts more emphasis on cooperation with China.

The pivot of the pivot is evident this week in Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s travel through Southeast Asia, which is to include stops in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Speaking Tuesday in Hanoi – which she lauded as “a pretty cool place” (perhaps playing with words and subtly referencing Washington’s recent record-breaking heat) – Secretary Clinton chose to underscore “the breadth of our engagement” in the Asia Pacific.

“It’s not just about security, although that is important,” she said of the administration’s efforts to “reenergize” America’s regional ties. “It’s also about standing up for democracy and human rights,” she told the American Chamber of Commerce, and “for economic ties, boosting trade, and as secretary of State, advocating for American businesses.”  

When Clinton stops in Laos on Wednesday she’ll be the first secretary of State to visit that country since John Foster Dulles in 1955. And whereas his purpose over a half-century ago was to keep Laos from becoming a communist domino, Clinton will emphasize America’s role in regional cooperation efforts when she meets the country’s leaders.

Clinton’s focus on boosting economic ties contrasts sharply with the message she carried to Southeast Asia when she last visited in 2010. Her trip then, which also included Hanoi, was portrayed more as putting China on notice that America would be around to counterbalance any aggressive action in the South China Sea than as a business and trade mission.

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