The United States said Monday it would no longer allow its row with Myanmar to hold its ties with Southeast Asia hostage, as President Barack Obama geared up for his debut official visit to the region.
A line of APEC banners outside the Suntec Convention Centre in Singapore on Monday, Nov. 9, 2009. (AFP Photo)
Obama is due to hold the first-ever meeting between a US president and leaders of all 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, including Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein, on Sunday in Singapore.
"One of the frustrations that we've had with policy toward Burma over recent years has been that the inability to have interaction with Burma has prevented certain kinds of interaction with ASEAN as a whole," said Obama's top Asia policy aide Jeffrey Bader.
Bader said the meeting was a multilateral session, and not intended to serve as an opportunity for Obama to have a conversation with a Myanmar leader -- though did not categorically rule out such an encounter.
"We're going to meet with all 10 and we're not going to punish the other nine simply because Burma is in the room, but this is not a bilateral."
Myanmar represents another test for Obama's policy of engaging US foes, which has also seen him allow contacts between US officials and Democractic People's Republic of Korea, Iran, Syria and Cuba.
In previous years, hopes for a US-ASEAN leaders' summit have foundered on Washington's refusal to sit down with members of Myanmar's junta because of their suppression of Aung San Suu Kyi's democracy movement.
Myanmar, or Burma, has been a constant impediment to US-ASEAN ties, but the US administration last week sent senior officials to the military-ruled state in a bid to promote a new dialogue after years of shunning the junta.
The Obama administration reasons that the policy of isolating Myanmar has failed for 20 years, so it is time to try a new approach.
Officials however caution that they will not lift US sanctions on the military-ruled state until it embraces diplomatic change, and have no high expectations of progress soon.
Obama's keenness to deepen ties with ASEAN can be partly explained by the fact that while Washington has been distracted by Middle Eastern quagmires, China has deepened its own links with the region.
Now, some US officials fear Washington could be eclipsed as a major Asian power.
The ASEAN summit will take place on the sidelines of the annual Asia Pacific Cooperation forum (APEC) in Singapore, at which Obama is also making his debut.
Apart from Myanmar and Singapore, ASEAN also includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.