ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
Closer relations seen if Obama becomes president - aides
US ties with Southeast Asia could see significant expansion if Senator Barack Obama wins the White House race, as his advisers favour his participation in a key East Asian summit and the expansion of US alliances in the region, reported AFP quoting close aides to the US presidential candidate.
They consider the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) as a largely neglected entity under President George W Bush's administration, who has refused to participate in the 16-nation summit organised by the group.
The summit comprises leaders of the 10 Asean states -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
The United States has not been invited by Asean to join the East Asian summit because it has refused to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), a non-aggression pact whose ratification is mandatory for a seat at the regional leaders' meeting.
Frank Jannuzi, a senior Asia adviser to the Obama campaign, told AFP that he would advise an Obama administration to sign the TAC and participate in the East Asian summit.
"I don't know whether Senator Obama as president will do that but it will be my own personal recommendation," said Jannuzi, an East Asia specialist in a US Senate foreign relations panel led by Obama's running mate Senator Joseph Biden.
Robert Gelbard, another Obama adviser, also pushed for a US seat at the East Asian summit, expressing regret that the Bush administration had ignored Asian efforts to build a "regional architecture" over the last decade.
"We've left the terrain wide open for China and Russia as it's moved forward," he told a recent forum.
"One of these issues could very well be signing onto the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, with reservations," said Gelbard, a former ambassador. "We need to assure our own basic fundamental security issues, including nuclear issues."
Australia, for example, signed the pact in 2005 on condition that its accession will not affect its bilateral and multilateral treaty commitments nor rights and obligations under the UN Charter.
Michael Green, an Asia adviser to Obama's Republican rival Senator John McCain in the November 4 election, indicated that a McCain administration could be open to any participation at the East Asian summit.
"I think many Asian experts would say we need to look at a way to get more engaged in the East Asia summit," he said.
McCain has emphasised strengthening existing US alliances, especially with Japan and South Korea, as a key pillar of his Asia policy.
The United States is the only major power that has refused to sign the TAC, which bans signatories from using violence to settle conflicts in the region.
Jannuzi also said that an Obama administration wanted its current Asian partnership with key allies such as Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore to be augmented by "new partners" such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Citing Indonesia, Southeast Asia's largest nation and the world's biggest Muslim democracy, Jannuzi said the scope for US cooperation could go beyond counter-terrorism to cover areas such as maritime security.
"An Obama administration would give greater focus to Asean because Asean is 500 million people, it is such a vital part of the world which is often neglected and usually we view it through a narrow prism of counter-terrorism," he said.
Aside from maritime security, he proposed broader engagement to improve "economic relationships, good governance, sustainable economic development and environmental protection."
Military-ruled Myanmar, which is under US and EU sanctions over its long record of human rights abuses, has been a thorn in US-Asean ties, but Jannuzi said it should not prevent deeper US engagement with Asean.
"Rather, the United States should work with Asean to ensure that Burma (Myanmar) lives up to its obligation as an Asean member," he said.
Asean members are expected by year end to formally adopt a charter committing them to promote democracy and human rights.
Bush's plans to hold a first US-Asean summit failed to take off because of Myanmar, although he meets key Asean leaders on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum summit.