At times, global diplomacy is a lot like school: You get points just for showing up.
By attending an intergovernmental summit on the Thai island of Phuket this week, United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton can point to a stronger US commitment to Southeast Asia, a region that felt slighted by her predecessor's spotty attendance record and security-first mind-set. By contrast, Ms. Clinton has proposed a broader range of cooperation with a region of 570 million people.
While the US is still driven by security concerns, particularly over North Korea's nuclear program, Clinton's presence in Phuket sends a signal that Southeast Asia matters. It also comes at a delicate juncture for Burma (Myanmar), a longstanding irritant.
"On behalf of our country and the Obama administration, 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," Clinton told a press conference here on Tuesday.
Competing with China for influence
Behind the renewed US attention is the rising influence of China, which has assiduously courted the region since the late 1990s.
Increased trade and cooperation with China has raised questions over the staying power of the US, particularly in light of its financial woes. That suggests that Clinton may be playing catch-up in Southeast Asia after the summit fuss dies down.
"The US needs to do more than be engaged. It needs to give the region the sense that the dynamism is on the US side. Right now, it's on the Chinese side," says Michael Montesano, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
The US remains the preeminent military power in Asia and the guarantor of open sea lanes that carry a significant share of trade in oil, food, and manufactured goods. Few expect that power to wane in the short term, despite the expansion of China's naval capacity.
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."
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."