PostHeaderIcon Rice To Take Center Stage with Asia Return

Rice will canvass support for US positions on North Korea, Myanmar and Iran's nuclear programs, as she turns her focus from the Middle East to Asia. She will meet Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ministers in Kuala Lumpur on July 27, and join the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) the next day, with counterparts from key players including Japan, Russia, China, and South Korea.    Last year Rice slighted the talks, sending her deputy Robert Zoellick, who has since announced he will step down. It was the first time since 1994 that the US secretary of state had been missing from the gathering, but analysts said her absence did not seriously dent US relations with ASEAN. "I don't think there is permanent damage, (but) if she had skipped it again they would have started look askew at us," said Dana Dillon of the Heritage Foundation think-tank. Dillon said the negative response that Rice spurred last year may have paradoxically improved US ties with the region. "It forced her to re-examine the relationship with Southeast Asia because of the negative response ... it turned out for the better."    Rice hopes to "further the international response to North Korea's missile launches and pursuit of nuclear weapons (and) Iran's nuclear programs," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said last week. She wants Asian allies to tackle the "lack of progress toward real democracy and national reconciliation in Burma (Myanmar)," he said. ARF looks set to break new ground over Myanmar, which Washington vilifies for stifling democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.    US secretaries of state used to turn up at the ARF in finger-wagging mode, chiding ASEAN for shielding Myanmar. Rice's no-show last year was seen in some quarters as a gesture of disappointment at ASEAN's stance on Myanmar, though sources here suggested it had more to do with placating Zoellick, a Bush loyalist and Asia expert deprived of a cabinet post. The US-Myanmar dynamic has changed, even since Rice's visit to South Korea for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum late last year, which saw her rebuke ASEAN for not doing enough to censure Yangon.