HANOI (Reuters) - Tension on the Korean peninsula, elections in military-ruled Myanmar and the question of whether the former Burma is developing nuclear arms will top the agenda of meetings of Asian foreign ministers this week in Vietnam.
Southeast Asian foreign ministers met in Hanoi on Monday to discuss regional security ahead of talks this week with counterparts from China, Japan, North and South Korea, the United States, the European Union and Russia.
Myanmar’s foreign minister repeated that the country had no ambition to become a nuclear power, denying a report published in June by an exile group that it was trying to develop a secret nuclear program with the intention of making an atomic bomb.
“Myanmar told the meeting that it’s not attempting to procure or develop nuclear weapons and we thanked them for their clarification on the matter,” said Thani Thongpakdi, a deputy spokesman for the Thai foreign ministry.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives on Thursday and will reinforce Washington’s commitment to Asia in the face of rising Chinese influence and growing tensions with North Korea during two days of meetings, U.S. officials say.
A copy of a draft statement to be issued by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) said the 10-member group shared “deep concern” at the sinking of a South Korean warship and growing friction on the Korean peninsula.
Tension between North and South Korea remains high following the March sinking of the corvette Cheonan, killing 46 South Korean sailors. Pyongyang has denied responsibility and escaped censure this month from the United Nations, which condemned the attack but, under pressure from China, did not blame North Korea.
“We expressed deep concern over the sinking of (the) ship Cheonan,” said the draft, which also did not blame Pyongyang.
U.S. officials say Clinton is also likely to discuss human rights concerns, and could touch on prospects for Pacific trade talks that the Obama administration hopes will open regional markets to more U.S. exports.
North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun will attend Friday’s ASEAN Regional Forum, Asia’s largest security dialogue that includes all six parties in the stalled North Korean nuclear talks — North and South Korea and regional powers China, Japan the United States and Russia.
U.S. officials say Clinton will raise concerns about election preparations in Myanmar, hoping to underscore that the country’s military leaders must be held accountable for the lack of real democratic reform.
Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors have urged the junta to hold “free and fair” elections, expected this year, and to free pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Southeast Asia has been divided over the issue. Early last year some Southeast Asian countries urged ASEAN to take a tougher stand with a public appeal calling on the junta to grant an amnesty to Suu Kyi.
That went nowhere. Several ASEAN nations rebuffed it, saying it contravened the grouping’s long-standing non-interference policy in each others’ internal politics. The detention of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has been jailed or under house arrest for 15 of the last 21 years, has led the West to sharply criticize the former Burma’s election plans.
“There will certainly be questions about Myanmar on progress and preparation for the upcoming elections. But it is unlikely to be strong, stinging words,” Chitriya Pinthong, deputy permanent secretary of Thailand’s foreign ministry, told Reuters.
“Things are moving in a positive direction and we want to engage the government in a constructive way rather than condemnation even before elections take place.”
The United States is also increasingly concerned about potential links between Myanmar and North Korea, including reports by an exiled anti-government group that Myanmar may be harboring nuclear ambitions of its own, U.S. officials said.
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said the United States would press Myanmar to implement U.S. Security Council resolutions tightening sanctions on North Korea but that there were “no plans in the current climate” for Clinton to meet representatives of either North Korea or Myanmar in Hanoi.
Additional reporting by John Ruwitch, Andrew Quinn and Jack Kim; Editing by Alex Richardson