N. Korea, extremist threat focus of Asean meetings

(From left) Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, Myanmar Foreign Minister U Kyaw Tin, Thai Permanent Secretary Busaya Mathelin, Vietnam's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Nguyen Quoc Dung, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Cayetano, S
(From left) Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, Myanmar Foreign Minister U Kyaw Tin, Thai Permanent Secretary Busaya Mathelin, Vietnam's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Nguyen Quoc Dung, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Cayetano, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Brunei's Foreign Minister Lim Jock Seng are among the senior officials in Manila for the 50th Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESS PHOTO AGENCY

Draft note on foreign ministers' meeting omits China's actions in S. China Sea dispute

The South China Sea territorial disputes appear to have taken a back seat as South-east Asian foreign ministers, in meetings in Manila this week, focus instead on reaching a consensus on how to deal with North Korea and the growing threat of Islamist extremism.

The disputes over the strategic waterway - most of which is claimed by China - have led to discord in the 10-member Asean in recent years. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims.

But a "soft draft" of a joint Asean communique, to be issued at the end of the foreign ministers' meeting today, makes no mention of China arming and building islands in the South China Sea to assert its claims.

The closest reference to the islands is a sentence calling on all claimants to "avoid unilateral actions in disputed features that may further complicate the situation in keeping with the principle of peaceful resolution of disputes without resorting to the threat or use of force".

The ministers are expected to "reaffirm the importance of enhancing mutual trust and confidence, and exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities".

They are also set to "celebrate" a two-page framework of a code of conduct meant to prevent conflicting territorial claims over the South China Sea from erupting into violent confrontations.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano listed three "challenges" yesterday.

"One is how to push for your national interest, but in the context of regional stability of Asean. Second, how do you come up with statements that reflect what's happening on the ground. Third, how do these statements that reflect what's happening on the ground reflect both the concerns and positive events. Balancing those three is the difficult part," he said.

Diplomatic sources said that with Asean's attention turned to North Korea and the threat of Islamist extremism in the region, the ministers are likely to merely "note" concerns over China's purported militarisation of islands in the South China Sea.

Manila is seeking to forge a consensus on how to address the North Korea issue, following calls from Washington to isolate Pyongyang. "As Asean chair, all I can do is get a consensus and implement the consensus. As the Philippines, we can have a stand. But as the chair, we're only here to preside and not to command," Mr Cayetano told reporters.

The United States and China, North Korea's main ally, have been wrestling with how best to respond to the North's two intercontinental ballistic missile tests, which have deepened global fears that the missiles would be able to strike the US mainland.

Mr Cayetano said that at Indonesia's suggestion, he and his fellow ministers would have an informal meeting last night to talk about North Korea ahead of Monday's Asean Regional Forum (ARF) meeting.

He said a proposal to exclude Pyongyang from the ARF "is a point to talk about". Another is the US proposal for Asean to "downgrade" ties with Pyongyang.

"It's our job to have a consensus, so either we discuss it later or tomorrow, but we'll have to come up with a decision," he said.

Mr Cayetano said a proposal to issue a separate statement on the situation in the Korean peninsula was also being considered.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2017, with the headline 'N. Korea, extremist threat focus of Asean meetings'. Print Edition | Subscribe