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Clinton stresses US commitment at ASEAN forum

The US secretary of State's presence is meant to send a signal that Southeast Asia matters – and that the US is watching Chinese influence in the region.

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On Wednesday, Clinton signed a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is hosting the summit. Its secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan, said it was "a shift in strategy on the part of the new US administration toward ASEAN."

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In reality, the treaty is largely symbolic, say analysts. China signed it in 2003, as have other major powers, but it's unlikely to bear much weight on potential flash points in the region, including sea boundaries between China and Vietnam and disputed islands such as the Spratleys.

As an example of cooperation, Clinton cited a 20-nation exercise in disaster relief held in the typhoon-prone Philippines in May. Thursday's forum of senior government officials also touched on common responses to the H1N1 virus that has sparked panic in Thailand.

Aung San Suu Kyi trial to resume

On Friday, the trial of Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is due to resume. Her plight, and doubts over the regime's promise to hold fair elections in 2010, has soured relations between ASEAN and its Western allies.

The trial has prompted the US to put on hold a mooted policy rethink toward Burma. Clinton said Wednesday that the release of Ms. Suu Kyi could lead to increased US investment.

Burma's political stalemate has also sowed discord within ASEAN: Indonesia's foreign minister has complained that military-ruled Burma is a drag on the region's global standing as it exposes its "democratic deficit." He also said Burma should release Suu Kyi ahead of elections in 2010.

Such plain speak is anathema to autocrats in the 10-nation group. The friction underscores widening divisions within ASEAN and suggests another reason why US attention has lagged recently. Last year, the group adopted a charter that included a human-rights body. But its remit has been narrowly defined, to the dismay of rights activists who fear Burmese meddling.

"It is held hostage by its own terms of reference," says Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher in Bangkok for Amnesty International. "[It] has no power to protect, and any decisions rendered by it must be reached by consensus – by definition with the assent and agreement of Myanmar."