US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opened a US-Asean ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, as international foreign ministers gather for a major regional security forum to open Thursday.
Clinton touched down Wednesday between monsoon rainstorms. She delivered an address ahead of her meeting, saying she “strongly” supports Asean. The US has recently undertaken more engagement in Southeast Asia, where China’s influence continues to grow.
“I understand that Asean faces a variety of challenges and even growing pains as it adapts and takes on new responsibilities,” she said. “But I believe Asean plays an indispensable role in holding this region’s institutional architecture together and in advancing the common interest of all stakeholders in the Asia Pacific.”
Many of those stakeholders have been meeting all week to try to reach an agreement on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, where overlapping claims by China, Vietnam and the Philippines are a major security issue for Asean.
On Wednesday, Asean ministers and Chinese officials, including Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, failed to reach an agreement on that code of conduct, whose advocates hope it will prevent a conflict over the sea.
Fu Ying, vice minister for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters conditions are “ripe” for discussions, but that all parties must adhere to the code, officially called the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
“If some members violated the [declaration] expecting they can be exempted from the [declaration], this is not good for improving the trust, understanding and confidence among the members,” Fu Ying said.
Aside from the South China Sea issue, Asian leaders are working on security on the Korean peninsula this week in Phnom Penh.
Asean states joined China, Japan and South Korea to urge North Korea to cease provocations on the peninsula.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the three states plus Asean called for “all parties concerned to explore all possibilities to engage in peaceful dialogue which would lead to creating an atmosphere of trust and confidence among the concerned parties.”
North Korean Foreign Minister, Pak Ui Chun, is expected to attend the Asean Region Forum, as well.
North Korean leaders recently expressed willingness to return to six-party talks, following a visit there by Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, who delivered overtures to the US from the secretive North Korean regime to Washington in a visit last month.