I would like to thank Cambodia for hosting this meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum. This institution has matured in recent years, emerging as a cornerstone of an increasingly effective regional architecture for the Asia-Pacific. Today is an opportunity for all of us to gather in one place and grapple with the most important challenges to our common security and prosperity. I would like to briefly touch on three of these issues and then say a few words about the future of this body.
I’ll begin with the good news. When we gathered last year in Bali, many of us were intently focused on developments in Nay Pyi Taw, but few dared to hope that real change would come.
Yet today, flickers of progress have grown and strengthened. We’ve seen new laws to protect freedom of assembly, expand the rights of workers to form labor unions, and outlaw and criminalize forced labor. More than 500 prisoners of conscience released. Ceasefires in some long-running ethnic conflicts. Efforts to unify the country’s multiple exchange rates and bring greater transparency to the national budget. And, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi is not only free, she is now a member of Parliament, along with dozens of colleagues from her once-banned political party.
The United States welcomes these reforms and we are committed to supporting continued progress. Our first ambassador in a quarter century arrived this week and we are reopening our USAID mission as well. Tomorrow, we will welcome the Foreign Minister to the Lower Mekong Initiative and the Friends of the Lower Mekong. And we are encouraging American businesses to invest in a manner that promotes responsible development and further reform. I am delighted that President Thein Sein has agreed to join us in Siem Reap for the U.S.-ASEAN Business Forum. And a high-level delegation of American business leaders will visit Nay Pyi Taw and Rangoon in a few days as well. We look forward to working with our ASEAN partners and with companies across the globe to help ensure that, as Aung San Suu Kyi said in her recent speech to the International Labor Organization in Geneva, investment and development contribute to democratic progress.
Today, I am pleased to announce that the United States is taking new steps to ease sanctions and pave the way for American companies to invest across all sectors of the Burmese economy. This will allow U.S. dollar-based transactions and access to a variety of international financial services. We are putting in place protections to ensure that our renewed investment advances rather than undermines continued reforms, including requiring public reporting by U.S. companies on what they’re doing to promote transparency and address human rights challenges. President Obama has also issued an Executive Order allowing us to target specific sanctions against individuals or entities who obstruct reform or commit human rights abuses.
This does not mean we are satisfied that reform is complete or irreversible. Political prisoners remain in detention. On-going ethnic and sectarian violence continues to undermine progress toward national reconciliation, stability, and lasting peace. And fundamental reforms are required to strengthen the rule of law and increase transparency. But we are encouraged by the path taken over the past year. The support of ASEAN and every interested nation around the world will be essential to assist continued progress along this long road. Then United States is committed to this task.
So Mr. Foreign Minister, we look forward to continuing to work together. And we are pleased that you will serve as our ASEAN country coordinator for the next three years. Let’s work to keep this institution effective, relevant, and focused on results.
Now, the second issue I’d like to address is the South China Sea. As a Pacific nation and resident power, the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea. We do not take a position on competing territorial claims over land features there, yet we remain intensely focused on conduct involving these claims.
We believe the nations of the region should work collaboratively and diplomatically to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats, and without the use of force.
All parties should clarify and pursue their territorial and maritime claims in accordance with international law. When disputes over islands and maritime boundaries arise, we encourage all parties to explore every diplomatic avenue for resolution, including the use of arbitration or other international legal mechanisms.
Each of us has followed closely the troubling recent developments in the South China Sea. None of us can fail to be concerned by the increase in tensions, the uptick in confrontational rhetoric, and disagreements over resource exploitation. We have seen worrisome instances of economic coercion and the problematic use of military and government vessels in connection with disputes among fishermen. There have been a variety of national measures taken that create friction and further complicate efforts to resolve disputes. Recent incidents in the Scarborough Reef, including confrontational behavior like the use of barriers to deny access, and regional disputes over oil and natural gas exploration blocks, underscore the need for agreement among all parties on rules of the road and the establishment of clear procedures for addressing disagreements.
History has shown that a region united by rules and norms will enjoy peace and stability. For decades, the United States has promoted a rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific. We remain firmly committed to the security of the region and to the principles upon which its remarkable progress has been built.
This is the ten-year anniversary of the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which set the goal of reaching a Code of Conduct. The United States supports a binding Code that is based on international law and agreements, including the Law of the Sea Convention and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation… a Code that creates a rules-based framework for regulating conduct in the South China Sea, including preventing and resolving disputes. Recent tensions lend further urgency to this effort.
We now look to ASEAN and China to make meaningful progress toward finalizing this Code. This will take leadership. And ASEAN is at its best when it meets its own goals and standards and is able to speak with one voice on issues facing the region. As we proceed, we believe the parties should adhere to the spirit and specifics of the 2002 Declaration of Conduct.
We also encourage relevant parties to explore new cooperative arrangements for managing the exploitation of potential hydrocarbon resources in the South China Sea. For example, this could include equitable joint exploration and exploitation arrangements in areas of unresolved territorial sovereignty. The goal should be to find creative ways to provide an endowment for future generations and to avoid unnecessary conflict.
Now, I’d like to turn to a third issue. North Korea’s pattern of provocations, and its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions constitute a serious threat to peace and security in Asia and the world.
The new leadership of North Korea faces a clear choice: They can focus on the needs and aspirations of their people and uphold his country’s international responsibilities, in which case the international community will extend a helping hand… or they can allow their country to fall further behind.
The United States is committed to achieving the peaceful, verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But this is a shared challenge, and so it demands a unified response from the entire region and the international community.
The ASEAN Region Forum must also be prepared to address new and emerging security challenges. That includes the growing challenge of cyber-security. Each of us should be concerned about the economic threat posed by cyber intrusions and theft of intellectual property and commercial data.
This Forum includes some of the world’s largest cyber actors. So this is an appropriate setting for a sustained, meaningful dialogue on cyberspace issues. In the years ahead, we should work together in support of responsible norms and standards, and pursue practical measures to build confidence and reduce risk.
The recent ASEAN Regional Forum Workshop on Proxy Actors in Cyberspace that the United States and Vietnam co-sponsored was a good start. We support a strong ministerial statement and work-plan on cyber security coming out of this session. And we look forward to the seminar on cyber confidence building measures that the Republic of Korea will host later this year.
The ASEAN Regional Forum offers capabilities and perspectives that can help forge common solutions to shared problems. The United States is committed to this body and we are committed to ASEAN’s central role in developing an effective architecture for the Asia-Pacific. And we look forward to working with all of you in a spirit of mutual respect and mutual interest.