US eyes bigger role in Southeast Asia

Updated: 2012-07-14 08:18

By Zhou Wa (China Daily)

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US eyes bigger role in Southeast Asia

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives a speech during the second Friends of Lower Mekong Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Friday. Photo by Heng Sinith / Associated Press

While softening its stance toward Myanmar, Washington was expected to focus more on economic issues than security concerns as it engaged its nontraditional partners in the region during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's tour of Laos and Vietnam this week.

Clinton on Friday met Myanmar President Thein Sein in Cambodia at the ASEAN-US Business Forum, while US President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday that US companies will be allowed to do business in Myanmar in certain sectors, including oil and gas.

After years of poor US-Myanmar relations since the late 1980s, the US tried to soften its stance toward Myanmar in 2011 and improved ties with the country in 2012.

Derek Mitchell, the first US ambassador to Myanmar in 22 years, took office in Yangon on Wednesday.

Experts and media said the US eyes opportunities the Southeast Asian countries will bring to its economic development and looks to increase its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, so it tried to improve ties with its nontraditional partners.

Southeast Asian countries such as Laos and Vietnam have great potential for economic development, although the countries still remain impoverished and will not have an impressive economic rise right away, said Yang Baoyun, an expert on Southeast Asian studies with Peking University.

"Proposing to increase its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, the US is looking for new partners in the region," said Yang, adding that Washington aims at getting political support from the Southeast Asian countries in return for economic cooperation and assistance.

Yang said Washington's invasion of the Southeast Asian countries established great influence with them, although the hostility of those countries toward the US remains because of the Vietnam War.

This influence also makes it easier for the US to be accepted by these countries and increase its presence in the region, he added.

The US hopes to benefit from the dynamic economic development of Southeast Asian countries, which are coming to the forefront of the world stage with their inexorable rise as global economic and political players, said Chen Qinghong, an expert on Southeast Asian studies with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

On Wednesday, Clinton became the first US secretary of state to visit Laos in 57 years, on a trip focused on the damaging legacy of the Vietnam War.

During her visit to Laos, Clinton pledged to remove millions of unexploded bombs dropped during the war, which still threaten people's lives in the Southeast Asian country.

Clinton told The Associated Press that she and Laotian leaders "traced the arc of our relationship from addressing the tragic legacies of the past to finding a way to being partners of the future".

Southeast Asian countries such as Laos are keen to achieve more economic development to get rid of poverty and need aid from the outside for their economic growth, a fact recognized and made use of by the US, said Chen.

Before the visit to Laos, Clinton also visited Vietnam on Tuesday. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited the country in June and agreed with the Vietnamese to expand defense cooperation.