Secretary of State John Kerry is in Laos, where he will lay the groundwork for a February summit with leaders of 10 ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) countries that will be hosted by President Barack Obama.
Kerry arrived in the capital, Vietiane, late Sunday. It is the first leg of a three-nation tour of Asia that also includes stops in Cambodia and China.
During his stay, Kerry and Asian leaders will discuss pressing regional issues, including the South China Sea dispute and growing concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program.
In February, President Obama will host a special ASEAN summit in California. The gathering will be an opportunity for U.S. and Asia Pacific leaders to explore opportunities to broaden economic and cultural ties. Later this year, Obama travels to Laos, for an ASEAN summit, becoming the first U.S. president to do so.
“What makes the visit [by Secretary Kerry] particularly significant and timely,” said a senor State Department official, “is that Laos has just taken over as the chairman of ASEAN.”
In a Saturday briefing, the official added the U.S. had been doing a “fair amount” to support Laos’ chairmanship.
Kerry will continue talks promoting bilateral ties in Cambodia, another ASEAN country and one of the fastest-growing economies in the region.
However, the U.S. is also concerned about political strains in Cambodia, the senior State Department official said.
“The relationship between the ruling party and the opposition party is fraught right now,” said the official, who said Kerry would meet with opposition and civil society leaders as well as Cambodia’s prime and foreign ministers.
North Korea a focal point
Kerry will also visit Beijing during this trip, which comes after North Korea drew international condemnation, this month, for testing what it said was a nuclear device, for the fourth time since 2006.
“In an odd way, every time North Korea does a nuclear test that’s a moment of opportunity for the United States to try to convince China to cooperate more closely in punishing North Korea,” said Scott Snyder, a Korean studies analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The U.S. has been pressing China, an economic lifeline to North Korea, to use its leverage to urge Pyongyang to stop what world leaders view as provocative action. Also, the U.N. Security Council, which includes China, is considering imposing additional penalties on North Korea.
In spite of China’s “friendly overtures” to North Korea, it has experienced success in getting the North to tone down provocations, said the senior State Department official.
“In the past, the Chinese have often quietly found ways to send a message that a North Korean leader simply could not afford to overlook, the official said.
The U.S. has also been urging China and its neighbors to seek a peaceful resolution to a maritime dispute in the South China Sea.
Earlier this month, regional tensions flared when China tested a runway on one of its artificial islands in the region. China and other Asia-Pacific nations, including Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
Asia is the second leg of a five-nation tour for Kerry that also included stops in Switzerland and Saudi Arabia.