Tillerson set to canvass support from Asean

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be meeting Asean foreign ministers on Thursday (May 4).
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be meeting Asean foreign ministers on Thursday (May 4).PHOTO: NYTIMES

Support from Asean for robust implementation of sanctions against North Korea is likely to figure high on the agenda when visiting Asean foreign ministers meet US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson today.

The US is also expected to enhance its engagement with Asean under the Asean-US Strategic Partnership, including economic integration, maritime cooperation, transnational security challenges, training and technology, in preparation for East Asia and Asean Regional Forum meetings in Manila in August.

Since the meeting with the ministers was planned a month ago, the US focus on North Korea has sharpened. The US wants "all members of the international community to fully implement relevant UN Security Council resolution sanctions on North Korea, suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with the DPRK, and take steps to isolate the DPRK financially", a spokesman for the State Department's East Asia and the Pacific office told The Straits Times. DPRK - Democratic People's Republic of Korea - is the North's formal name.

There is now recognition in Washington that dealing with North-east Asia requires Asean as well, analysts say.

"In the last month or so, we've seen a sort of Trump pivot to Asia, which is a positive thing," Mr Ernie Bower, chief executive of consultancy Bower Group Asia, told ST.

UNDERSTANDING THE US STAND

The region very much wants to know where the United States is going to stand on the South China Sea, and more broadly what its approach to China is going to be.

DR AMY SEARIGHT, a former top US defence official for the region.

Professor Lee Sung Yoon of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston told ST: "There is a real need to re-engage South-east Asian countries on the North Korean issue in a very constructive way.

"There is certainly room for that. For example, Singapore and Malaysia have diplomatic relations with North Korea, and private entities have business relations with North Korean entities.

"The more united Asean countries are in enforcing sanctions, the better positioned the US will be in negotiating with North Korea."

This year is the 40th anniversary of US-Asean relations, and strategic, trade and investment ties are thriving. According to the White House website, Asean countries are collectively the US' fourth-largest trading partner.

With President Donald Trump having ordered last Saturday a review of trade agreements, several Asean countries are keen to get a sense of the direction of US trade policy.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea will also feature.

"The region very much wants to know where the United States is going to stand on the South China Sea, and more broadly what its approach to China is going to be," Dr Amy Searight, a former top US defence official for the region, told The Washington Post.

Senior State Department official Patrick Murphy told reporters last week that the US would continue freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, which were conducted periodically under the Barack Obama administration but have not occurred since Mr Trump took office in January.

The Asean foreign ministers will also meet National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, a day after their meeting with Mr Tillerson.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2017, with the headline 'Tillerson set to canvass support from Asean'. Print Edition | Subscribe