U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and top diplomats from Europe and Asia gather over the weekend to discuss recent flare-ups in the South China Sea, North Korea's nuclear weapons program and other issues that threaten to undermine regional security.
_ The South China Sea. There are conflicting territorial claims over the South China Sea, which is of tremendous strategic importance to everyone, including Washington, because one-third of the world's shipping transits through its waters. It's also rich with fish and is believed to hold huge oil and gas reserves beneath the seabed. China _ which claims the area in its entirety _ has been accused in recent months of trying to intimidate Philippine and Vietnam oil exploration boats in waters that are partially claimed also by those two countries and Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia. Also looming is the geostrategic competition between China and the United Sates. Both insist they stand for freedom of navigation, but there is also a military element. Washington is trying to deepen ties in the region and _ as in the past _ has been holding joint military training exercises with some of the smaller Southeast Asian nations, using the disputed waters and its airspace. That, obviously, heightens China's anxiety.
_ North Korea. Talks aimed at ending North Korean's nuclear weapons program have been stalled now for more than two years. But top diplomats from all six countries involved in the negotiations _ the United States, China, Russia, Japan and North and South Korea _ will be in attendance. That's raised hopes for informal, sideline talks between foreign ministers from the two Koreas, as has been known to happen in the past. North Korea walked out of the six-party negotiations in 2008 to protest international criticism of a prohibited long-range rocket launch and relations with South Korea have been testy ever since. But Pyongyang _ which stands to get badly needed aid and other concessions if it returns to the table _ has indicated in recent months that it might be ready. Everyone is eager to see that happen.
_ Myanmar: Developments in Myanmar are expected to come up. It held elections late last year, officially handing power to a civilian administration after a half-century of military rule and releasing pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Critics say the changes are cosmetic and that the army will continue to hold sway. Some 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars, more than 100,000 refugees live in neighboring Thailand, and sporadic clashes have continued in the north and east between the army and ethnic militias. Myanmar's desire to take over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014 will certainly come up. And officials will be watching closely to see if there is any indication Western governments are considering an ease-up on sanctions.
_ The ASEAN Regional Forum, established in 1994, is composed of 27 countries, many of them fierce rivals in any other setting. Most closely watched will be Clinton; China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi; North Korean's Pak Ui-Chun and Kim Sung-hwan of South Korea; Japan's Takeaki Matsumoto; and India's Shri S.M. Krishna and Salman Bashir of Pakistan.