Amid efforts on Korea, U.S. seeks Asia inroads in the Lower Mekong Initiative

NUSA DUA, Indonesia. Jul 23, 2011. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for deeper U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia to help bolster its poorest countries, while the region’s leaders worked to broker what they hoped would be progress in one of Asia’s other hot spots: North Korea.

Meeting on the sidelines of the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Bali on Friday, senior nuclear negotiators from North and South Korea agreed broadly to take steps to return to a bigger diplomatic process, known as the six-party talks, which are aimed at ending the North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. That process, which also involves China, Japan, Russia and the U.S., fell apart three years ago.

However, the diplomats didn’t describe how they planned to resolve the many differences that have left the process in limbo since 2009. U.S. officials, meanwhile, said it would take time to know if any serious progress, including more substantive concessions from North Korea, would materialize.

Mrs. Clinton, for her part, declared support for moves to ease tensions in the Koreas and in the South China Sea, a resource-rich area that has seen a growing number of disputes in recent months because of competing territorial claims from China, Vietnam, the Philippines and other Asian nations.

Although she commended regional leaders for pledging earlier this week to work together to resolve the claims, she avoided direct criticism of China, which has asserted its sovereignty over the disputed areas, and held back on tough talk about U.S. interests in the South China Sea that in the past has angered Chinese diplomats.

Mrs. Clinton spent much of the day promoting a different priority, known as the Lower Mekong Initiative, that she initiated in 2009 to boost development in poorer parts of Southeast Asia and, some say, quietly expand U.S. influence there.

Lower Mekong Initiative

The Lower Mekong Initiative, initiated by Hillary Clinton in 2009, seeks to boost development, and, some say, U.S. influence, in mainland Southeast Asia. Among the highlights this year:

Education ($ 3.25 million): English-language teaching for professionals and government officials; higher education improvements

Environment ($ 69 million): Visiting U.S. scientists; environmental sampling stations for the Mekong River; forest-protection schemes; water-use planning

Health ($ 140 million): Infectious disease response programs; cook-stove design workshops; drug-quality monitoring for malaria and other diseases

Infrastructure ($ 9 million): Building and repair of clinics, schools, emergency shelters, roads, bridges, and other needs

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