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Hands over cameras and ‘back-off’ glares and growls made it a drip-feed for journalists in Hanoi covering the Asia-Pacific meetings over the past few days.

Hillary Clinton arrives in Hanoi for the East Asia Summit (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

There was plenty happening however, even if information was slow to come out. Stakes were high, with the US and China clashing over a number of long-running issues, such as the value of the Chinese renminbi, control of the South China Sea, North Korea, and more recently, Japan.

Arriving late to the show, American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on the end of Chinese anger once more, with Beijing claiming she took Japan’s side in a territorial dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea. China recently overtook Japan to become the world’s second biggest economy, behind the United States.

This comes after China and Japan clashed over Tokyo’s arrest of Chinese sea captain near the islands, which prompted street protests and threats to boycott Japanese businesses in China. Beijing then stopped exports to Japan of so-called rare earth minerals, which are vital to the production of hi-tech communications and electronic goods. China currently dominates the world market in rare earths, meaning that Japan, and other countries, may seek alternative sources.

One possibility is summit host Vietnam, which Japan says has some of the minerals underground. The Hanoi Government, like many others in southeast Asia, is doing its best to balance between the US and China. Though economically-linked to and in some ways dependent on China, Vietnam has moved closer to the US in recent months, with the former enemies now sharing naval intelligence.

“Gunboat diplomacy” was how one southeast Asian diplomat, speaking to me on condition of anonymity, has described Beijing’s rhetoric over the South China Sea, which it deems a core interest on a par with Taiwan and Tibet. The US says it should remain an international waterway, and has backed countries with claims on the sea, such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, who want a multilateral solution to these claims. China wants to deal with each country on a one-by-one basis.

Indonesia's foreign minister speaks to the press (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Notable too is the difference between the various countries at the summit in how they deal with the press. Indonesia and the Philippines, and to a lesser extent Thailand, have been generally approachable, with Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa acquiring a Mr Soundbite status, in advance of US President Barack Obama’s visit to Jakarta next week

Hillary Clinton spoke only at her official press briefings, while the Japanese delegation were eager too to tell their side of the China row to western reporters.

But host country Vietnam has curbed its own press from reporting on relations with China, forcing some outlets to pull stories over the weekend, as they were deemed too sensitive.

Quietest of all is Burma, whose representatives cannot or will not talk, and can be seen marching face to the floor, as they move from meeting to meeting. The military-ruled country will have a general election on November 7, but this will merely serve to keep dictator Than Shwe in power. There has been little or no pressure on Prime Minister Thein Sein, whom Than Shwe reportedly calls “my postman”, to undertake any last-ditch measures to make the election appear free or fair, though Secretary Clinton spoke about the possibility of an international war crimes inquiry targeting the military junta.

China will likely veto such a move, however, and with an array of great power clashes at the summit, the long-running suffering of the Burmese people has gotten little or no attention.

For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Hanoi.

Thailand's foreign minister Kasit Piromya in Hanoi (Photo: Simon Roughneen
Hun Sen, Cambodia's PM (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
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