Asian nations moved on Friday to defuse two critical points of tension in the Pacific, in preliminary steps welcomed by the Obama administration, which is trying to reassert U.S. influence in the region.
On the sidelines of a Southeast Asian regional security conference in Bali, Indonesia, North and South Korea resumed long-stalled talks and China and its neighbors reached a draft agreement to peacefully resolve competing territorial claims in the strategic South China Sea.
American officials expressed cautious hope that discussions between Seoul and Pyongyang could help relaunch nuclear disarmament negotiations with the North, and in a meeting with her Chinese counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton commended Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for the maritime deal.
The U.S. and China are major players with significant stakes in the resumption of dialogue between North and South Korea as well as six-nation talks aimed at convincing the North to give up its nuclear weapons program.
On that front, the top nuclear negotiators from the North and South met on the sidelines of the annual ASEAN Regional Forum on Friday, their first talks since the six-party negotiations collapsed three years ago.
The North's newly appointed envoy Ri Yong Ho said he and his South Korean counterpart Wi Sung-lac agreed to work together to quickly restart the nuclear talks. "We agreed to make efforts to resume the six-party talks soon," Ri told reporters after the meeting. He said the meeting was conducted in a "candid and sincere" atmosphere, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.
Wi, who described the talks as "productive" and "helpful," confirmed the agreement and said he and Ri would continue their efforts, according to Yonhap.
North Korea, which stands to get badly needed aid and other concessions if it returns to the six-party talks, has indicated in recent months that it might be ready.
North Korea's main ally, China, has been pressing for a speedy resumption of the talks but the U.S. and others have held out, saying that meaningful North-South dialogue must occur first. A senior U.S. official said Washington was pleased to see the North and South getting together again but added it would take time determine whether the rapprochement was enough to warrant a return to the table.
Clinton told Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi that she was eager to discuss with him "our mutual desire for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula" but offered no hint on whether the U.S. would agree to resume the nuclear talks.
Yang, however, signaled China's intense interest in getting things back on track. "Anything we can do together to promote better atmosphere and good dialogue among the parties concerned and to work together to restart the six-party talks would be in the best interests of peace, stability and security of the region," he said.
The disarmament talks have been stalled since 2008, when North Korea walked out to protest international criticism of a prohibited long-range rocket launch. Tensions between the North and South have remained testy ever since.
Progress was also reported on another major security front, with the draft deal between China and ASEAN over the South China Sea.
"I want to commend China and ASEAN for working so closely together to include implementation guidelines for the declaration of conduct in the South China Sea," Clinton told Yang.
Yang said he believed the agreement would go "a long way" in promoting "peace and stability" in the resource-rich South China Sea, through which one-third of the world's shipping passes. "This will of course provide favorable conditions for the proper handling and settlement of disputes among claimants," he said.
China, which claims sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, has been accused in recent months of trying to intimidate oil exploration by the Philippines and Vietnam in waters that are partially claimed also by those two countries and Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia. Beijing long has resisted calls for a binding code of conduct that would require disputes in the waterway to be solved peacefully and without threats of violence.
Last year, Clinton raised Beijing's ire by saying resolution to the disputes was a U.S. national security interest because of Washington's desire to guarantee navigational safety and maritime security in the South China Sea. She made the matter a central point of her participation in the East Asia Summit hosted by Vietnam, something that U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to restate when he attends that event this year.
U.S. officials are keen to see the deal implemented but warned that much more work needed to be done. Clinton said she would lay out U.S. ideas for ensuring its success in a speech to the forum on Saturday.
The Clinton-Yang meeting appeared friendly, which was seen as unusual given that Beijing just last week angrily condemned the White House meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, which China claims as a province. The matter was not mentioned in public, although a Chinese spokesman said afterward that Yang had raised the importance of respecting China's "sovereignty and territorial integrity," including Tibet.
Clinton's other main agenda item is seeking ASEAN action on Myanmar. The country, also known as Burma, 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. But many see the changes as cosmetic and believe the army will continue to hold sway.
The Obama administration had sought to engage Myanmar to improve conditions, but the policy has produced little concrete results and Washington has not eased sanctions on the country. Clinton said the administration would be looking to ASEAN to press Myanmar on rights but more importantly wanted the country's new leaders to shift policy and engage the United States.
She called Myanmar "a challenge" and told ASEAN members that the country must unconditionally release more than 2,000 political prisoners and begin a dialogue with the opposition and ethnic minorities. She also demanded that Myanmar respect UN resolutions barring trade in sensitive military goods with North Korea.
"The choice is clear," Clinton said. "They can take these steps and gain back the confidence of their people and the trust of the international community or they can continue down the path they've been on."