President Barack Obama on Saturday became the first U.S. leader to attend an East Asia summit, where leaders from 18 nations discussed territorial disputes in the South China Sea, democratic reforms in military-dominated Myanmar, mitigating natural disasters, currency, trade and other issues.
Attending were heads of state and representatives from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and _ for the first time _ Russia and the United States.
The most closely watched were Obama and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao _ who held an unscheduled one-on-one Saturday _ and Myanmar President Thein Sein. Domestic issues resulted in a no-show for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
_ Maritime security: The South China Sea is strategically important to everyone, with busy international sea lanes, rich fishing areas and potential energy reserves. China claims the area in its entirety and has been accused of trying to intimidate boats in disputed waters. Looming larger in the talks, however, was the geostrategic competition between China and the United Sates. Obama unveiled a plan for an expanded U.S. Marines presence in Australia. Most Southeast Asian nations welcomed that, but Beijing bristled.
_ Myanmar: Nations acknowledged democratic reforms in Myanmar by saying it would chair the regional bloc in 2014, and the U.S. announced Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would go to Yangon next month. But all were quick to agree that despite the progress, Myanmar's military-dominated government needs to do much more. An estimated 2,000 political prisoners are still held, and the new government has been slow to engage in meaningful dialogue with the opposition or settle differences with long-persecuted ethnic minorities.
_ Trade: U.S. plane-maker Boeing announced its largest deal in history with a little-known Southeast Asian airline hours before the meeting _ 230 planes worth an estimated $21 billion _ highlighting the rising economic might of the region that has bounced back from the 1997 economic crisis with a roar. Leaders of the 18 countries talked about breaking down trade barriers, improving infrastructure, and building seamless transportation links between countries with vastly different cultural and political beliefs. The 10 Southeast Asian nations alone have a combined GDP of $1.7 trillion _ more than India _ and 600 million people. But leaders stressed with hundreds of millions living on less than $2 a day in a region that is constantly battered by natural disasters, most recently floods in the Thai capital, much work needs to be done.