Foreign ministers of Southeast Asian countries are gathering in Myanmar this week for two meetings. The United States, China and other countries are sending representatives to the meetings.
The talks are taking place in Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, also known as Burma. They come as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations continues preparations to launch its integrated economic community next year. ASEAN officials say the planned system would ease restrictions on trade and labor across borders.
Much of the change in Southeast Asia has come from economic forces. But there are political issues dividing ASEAN member countries. One example is the South China Sea dispute.
Daniel Russel is the top United States diplomat for East Asia. He says China's temporary deployment of an oil platform in disputed waters has increased tension in the area.
"China, as a large and powerful nation, has a special responsibility to show restraint. There is a big footprint that comes with military strength and it warrants setting your feet very, very carefully -- treading very gingerly when you are in a sensitive area."
Secretary of State John Kerry plans to attend the conference in Myanmar. A U.S. diplomat says Secretary Kerry will urge China and its neighbors to agree to voluntarily end actions that increase tensions in the South China Sea.
Panitan Wattanayagorn studies issues of concern to ASEAN. He says progress on major issues will remain slow because of past events.
"This region is, of course, full of, in the past, suspicious intents, lack of trust, especially in terms of military capability, especially in terms of the growth of the big powers. The region has gone through so many decades of turmoil during the colonial period, during the Cold War period."
Thailand has faced diplomatic pressure from Western countries since Thai military officers ousted the civilian government in May. The pressure has included cuts in assistance to the Thai military.
The ouster of the civilian government also has led ASEAN members and others to believe that Thailand could be moving toward a closer relationship with China.
"The Thai representatives need to assure that that will not be the case, that will be a more balanced approach, getting engaged with all countries, like Myanmar, like Cambodia, like most of the rest off the ASEAN members. They have to be more well-rounded, they have to be more multi-dimensional."
This year, Myanmar is chairing ASEAN meetings for the first time. Some ASEAN officials are not sure the country can provide effective leadership. They note that Myanmar is dealing with ethnic unrest and rebel groups. At the same time, the country is moving away from years of military rule.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was created in 1967. The group has always made a point of not criticizing its members. That has led to results that have earned little praise or general agreements on important issues. This has made some people question the value of ASEAN in a fast-changing world. I'm Bob Doughty.
*This report was based on a story from VOA correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok.