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US President Barack Obama was to sit down with friends and foes alike Sunday at an inaugural summit with Southeast Asian leaders including the prime minister of the region’s pariah state Myanmar.
The landmark meeting on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific forum was to inject some much-needed warmth into relations with a region that has felt neglected as the United States turned its focus to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I believe that the United States is taking the relationship seriously at the highest levels. There is now a momentum that is created,” said Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan.
For Obama, it is an opportunity to enlist the support of Myanmar’s neighbours in his new strategy of engagement to push for democracy in the military-run state and the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In a speech before arriving in Singapore, the US leader offered Myanmar’s generals the prospect of a better relationship if they agreed to reform, but said sanctions would remain until they took concrete steps.
“That is how a government in Burma will be able to respond to the needs of its people,” he said in Tokyo on the first leg of his debut tour of Asia, referring to Myanmar by its former name.
“That is the path that will bring Burma true security and prosperity.”
It is unclear whether Obama will direct any comments specifically to Myanmar’s prime minister Thein Sein, or ask him point-blank to release Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for most of the past two decades.
“The president will make a decision on what he says, I won’t try to predict what he will say,” US ambassador to ASEAN Scot Marciel told reporters at this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings.
In a draft of a statement to be released after the talks, the US and ASEAN leaders did not mention Suu Kyi but urged the junta to ensure that elections planned for next year will be “free, fair, inclusive and transparent”.
Myanmar has held US ties with Southeast Asia hostage for years, but Obama is keen to review the relationship with the fast-developing region as China exerts a growing presence in its own backyard.
The meeting later Sunday was to be the first time a US president has shared the same room with all 10 leaders from ASEAN — a mixed bag of emerging democracies, monarchies, and communist states.
First signs of a change came earlier this year, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed a landmark friendship pact with ASEAN in a move seen as a sign of the US desire to counter Beijing’s influence.
One issue crucial to the export-reliant region is trade, but Obama has been under fire at the APEC meetings over what other leaders say is a resurgence of US protectionism during the global economic crisis.
“One of the things that has to be understood right now is that there are limits to engagement on both sides,” said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at the Singapore Management University.
Animosity towards free trade has been intensifying in the Democratic-led US Congress given the spectre of jobs being lost to low-wage Asian economies as the US unemployment rate climbs past 10 percent.
ASEAN members are meanwhile hobbled by their policy of non-interference in each other’s affairs, and their focus on their often turbulent domestic arenas.
“This is Obama’s first trip here as president and in this context a lot of this trip is a listening trip… as opposed to delivery,” said Welsh.
ASEAN’s members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.