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Obama vows enhanced US-Asean partnership

SINGAPORE – US President Barack Obama has reaffirmed his commitment to enhance Washington’s engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a key partner in the promotion of peace, prosperity and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

In a joint statement issued yesterday at the conclusion of the 1st US-ASEAN Summit, the leaders touched on a wide range of issues covering the relations between Southeast Asia and the US.

The Philippines, through President Arroyo, served as the coordinator for the summit chaired by Thailand and hosted by Singapore.

Mrs. Arroyo was the third leader to speak during the summit after Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva and President Obama.

The two sides agreed on the need for a broader and deeper ASEAN-US cooperation to promote educational exchanges, including in science and technology and social interactions.

Following the speech of Mrs. Arroyo before the Filipino community here last Thursday night, the US and ASEAN agreed to explore future areas of cooperation such as labor mobility, interfaith dialogue and development cooperation.

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Though the ASEAN has been seen as being neglected by the US, economic relations between the two sides paint a different picture.

In 2008, two-way trade volume reached $178 billion while foreign direct investments from the US amounted to $153 billion, making it the Americans’ favored destination in Asia.

The two sides agreed to further enhance economic cooperation and partnership through new initiatives under the ASEAN-US Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement, which is to be agreed upon by the ASEAN trade ministers and the US Trade Representative.

Initially, the focus would be on trade and customs facilitation.

It was also agreed that cooperation against international terrorism would be deepened under the framework of the ASEAN-US Joint Declaration for Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism.

In the field of transnational crimes, stronger efforts would be made to combat drug trafficking, money laundering, trafficking in persons, arms smuggling, sea piracy, international economic crimes and cyber crimes.

Human rights and Myanmar

Obama also aired his support for the plan to establish an ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.

At the same time, the US president called on Myanmar to ensure the holding of transparent and free elections next year.

Obama also invited the members of the proposed ASEAN commission to visit the US next year and consult with international experts in the field of human rights.

The US also supported the Human Rights Resource Centre for ASEAN, a track 2 initiative, with a university in Jakarta, Indonesia as the hub of the Centre and including a network of universities throughout the ASEAN.

In the case of Myanmar, which has been a source of concern for the ASEAN because of its human rights violations, ASEAN leaders welcomed the US policy to engage with the government of Myanmar, including the recent visit by senior US ministers to Rangoon.

“We expressed our hope that this effort, as well as ASEAN’s, would contribute to broad political and economic reforms and the process will be further enhanced in the future,” the statement read.

The two sides called on Myanmar to institute broad political and economic reforms, including the holding of free, fair, inclusive and transparent elections next year.

Both sides underscored the importance of achieving national reconciliation and for the government of Myanmar to help create the conditions for credible elections, “including by initiating a dialogue with all stakeholders to ensure that the process is fully inclusive.”

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Enrique Manalo said that the mood during the summit was friendly, observing no tension-filled moments between the US president and Myanmar President Gen. Thein Sein.

Manalo said Obama had referred to the importance of the release of political prisoners including pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

On the issue of nuclear non-proliferation, specifically the nuclear program of North Korea, the two sides urged Pyongyang to return to the Six-Party Talks process and to fully implement its commitments made in the Sept. 19, 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.

The leaders also urged North Korea to fully comply with its obligations in accordance with the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions, including those related to denuclearization and resuming its missile launch moratorium.

On the other hand, Manalo said there was no opportunity for Obama and President Arroyo to have any bilateral chats during the meeting, which lasted just a little over an hour.

Climate change initiatives

During the summit, the US and ASEAN leaders also agreed to accelerate the deployment of clean energy technology and energy efficiency measures.

The US proposed that the American secretary of energy and the ASEAN energy ministers would meet in 2010 to advance energy security and clean energy to explore cooperation in renewable and alternative energy.

“We agreed to work closely to ensure the success of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and that the agreed outcome should incorporate long-term cooperative actions to address climate change,” the statement read.

“We also recognized the critical importance of adapting to the increasingly severe effects of climate change in the region. We agreed to strengthen our collaboration in both research on climate impacts and development and implementation of appropriate policies and measures,” it added.

Food cooperation and security would also be strengthened between the two regions, specifically, to promote investments, capacity building, sharing of experience and best practices, research and development and infrastructure development in the agricultural sector.

The ASEAN leaders thanked the US for the assistance provided during recent calamities that hit several countries in the region.

The US also supported the ASEAN’s efforts to enhance its capacity building in disaster management and emergency response.

In the end, the two sides agreed to continue dialogues to sustain the momentum of the ASEAN-US relations.

Manalo explained the summit demonstrated the growing importance of the ASEAN region to the US as a major player in Asia and on cooperation on global issues.

“The tone of what President Obama said suggests that the US sees great potential in engaging ASEAN in a very wide range of activities,” Manalo said.

According to Manalo, another ASEAN-US summit would be held next year following the success of the first summit.

Manalo added the Philippines will be crafting the new five-year plan of action between the US and ASEAN.

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