Burma not raised by ASEAN leaders – The Irrawaddy

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Great power rivalries and regional security and economic issues to dominate Asian summit agenda, as compromise deal on Burma election observers discussed in Hanoi

Empty hall: the NCC in Hanoi (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

HANOI – Speaking to media inside Hanoi’s National Convention Center in Vietnam’s capital, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said Burma was not discussed by the region’s heads of Government at their retreat this afternoon.

After Asean foreign ministers discussed the Burma elections at length over a working dinner last night, the region’s heads of Government – including Burma Prime Minister Thein Sein – today focused on the summit’s “Connectivity” theme, which involves plans to enhance communications and transport infrastructure across the region.

Asked about whether Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s detained pro-democracy leader, would be released on November 13, the date on which her house arrest is due to expire, Surin said that representatives from the junta did not give any indication that this date would be amended or her sentence extended.

Surin told media that a request was made last night to Nyan Win, the Burma military government foreign minister, to allow foreign observation of the November 7 election. The junta is considering a deal to allow current Asean member-state embassies and some international organisation officials based in Burma to carry out poll observation. However no detail was given about the extent of access the officials and diplomats would be given, if the proposal goes ahead, or whether it would involve anything more than election observation. The deal would represent a compromise, after Asean member-states previously asked that election observers be permitted to enter Burma to observe the elections.

Asean leaders will convene again tonight for a dinner, during which Surin speculated that Burma might emerge as a topic, amid talk that Philippine President Benigno Aquino III was preparing a forceful statement – by Asean standards – denouncing the elections. Foreign Minister Alberto Romulo yesterday called the November 7 vote “ a farce”.

Great power rivalries look set to dominate this weekend’s Asian summits, set inside the bleak, socialist-cliché trappings of Hanoi’s imposing National Convention Center. Another round of US-China chest-thumping over a range of political, economic and security issues will likely push perennial hand-wringing about Burma to the background, after tonight. Meanwhile, a still-simmering Sino-Japanese dispute over the arrest of a Chinese sea captain threatens to scupper a bilateral meeting between Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese counterpart Naoto Kan.

The US and China are at odds over a number of issues – such as the value of China’s currency, access to the South China Sea, security on the Korean peninsula, to name a few. Countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia – all of whom have claims in the South China Sea – want any dispute resolution to be multilateral, as does the US. China prefers to deal with individual countries one-by-one, without American involvement, raising fears in southeast Asia that Beijing seeks to dominate the region. Speaking at the opening ceremony of the ASEAN Summit earlier today, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told his counterparts that the South China Sea would be on the agenda over the coming days in Hanoi, a position backed by most Asean member-states and the United States. Am Asean official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that ASEAN leaders wanted to shelve the Burma issue, to focus on the South China Sea issue in advance of tomorrow’s Asean-China summit. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton arrives on Saturday for the East Asia Summit, where she will join ASEAN leaders and heads of Government from China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Russia.

China’s growing assertiveness in east and southeast Asia has prompted observations that it has overplayed its hand, with Japan describing as “hysterical” the Chinese reaction to the Senkaku/Diaoyu incident – when Japanese naval officers arrested a Chinese captain whose ship was in the waters around the disputed islands.Tokyo is hoping to seal a deal this week to access so-called “rare-earth” minerals in Vietnam, materials vital to to the production of high-end electronic, telecommunications and consumer goods. China currently controls 90% of the export market in rare earths, leaving the Japanese economy in a highly-vulnerable position as relations between the two countries sour. In another indication of cooling ties, a trilateral economic meeting between China, Japan and South Korea scheduled for Hanoi tomorrow has been cancelled.

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