By Lachlan Carmichael (AFP)
July 21, 2009
BANGKOK — US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Thailand on Tuesday for a regional security conference expected to focus on the North Korean nuclear threat, Myanmar's rights record and terrorism.
Following a five-day visit to India, Clinton flew to Bangkok where she will meet Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, before heading to the island of Phuket for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF) on Wednesday.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Clinton's talks with Abhisit would focus on "cooperation on climate change and counter-terrorism, regional security, and Thailand's leadership role as ASEAN chair."
Clinton touched down in Thailand and headed straight for her meeting with Abhisit, without making any comment on the flight from New Delhi, an AFP correspondent said.
US officials said a key thrust of her debut appearance at the ARF would be how to crank up the pressure on North Korea to return to multilateral nuclear disarmament talks after its missile and nuclear weapons tests.
They said Clinton would meet one-on-one with her counterparts from South Korea, China, Japan and Russia -- all of whom were North Korea's partners in six years of disarmament negotiations.
North Korea withdrew from the talks after the UN censured its long-range missile test in April. The showdown with the international community took another turn for the worse when it staged a nuclear test in May.
Pyongyang's foreign minister has declined to attend the security forum, instead sending a roving ambassador to the grouping of 27 nations including the United States and European Union.
The US State Department has been coy on whether Clinton would meet any North Korean delegates in Phuket.
The forum will also face the perennial challenge of Myanmar, which has sparked international outrage by putting pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on trial over an incident in which an American man swam to her lakeside house.
Myanmar, ASEAN's most troublesome member since joining the bloc in 1997, showed its defiance earlier this month by refusing to allow UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to visit the opposition leader when he visited the country.
Clinton is also expected to discuss the region's economy and joint action on tackling swine flu, and will hold an unprecedented meeting with counterparts from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to discuss health and environmental issues concerning the Mekong river.
ARF will also tackle terrorism after deadly suicide blasts Friday at two hotels in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, a key ASEAN state that Clinton visited in February on her first overseas tour as secretary of state.
Clinton will also sign a non-aggression pact with ASEAN in a bid to counter the influence of China. Washington held off signing for years over concerns it would leave little room for it to tackle political and security issues.
Security in Phuket is heavy with thousands of police and soldiers on duty to prevent a repeat of an incident in April when anti-government protesters derailed a key Asian summit in Thailand.
"Thailand will provide tight security for all foreign ministers but I have ordered the Thai security team for the US delegation will be more alert," Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban told reporters.
"As of now we have no intelligence that there is any threat."
During her visit to New Delhi and Mumbai, Clinton said she had reassured her hosts that President Barack Obama would not only maintain but deepen a "strategic partnership" launched under his predecessor George W. Bush.
Deals were struck paving the way for billions of dollars in exports of civilian nuclear reactors and military hardware to India, but differences of opinion remain between New Delhi and Washington over climate change.