Asean in focus amid North Korea preoccupation in the US

North Korea was a key concern for the US administration that arose from the Asean foreign ministers' two days in Washington DC .
North Korea was a key concern for the US administration that arose from the Asean foreign ministers' two days in Washington DC . PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Asean countries have assured the US of full compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions on North Korea, designed to pressure the Pyongyang regime into curbing its nuclear programme.

They also assured the new administration that Asean was making progress in formulating a framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, where several Asean countries, most critically Vietnam and the Philippines, have overlapping territorial claims with China which has been beefing up its civilian and military presence in the area.

But top of the list of priorities for the new US administration, emerging from Asean foreign ministers' two days in Washington DC this week, was North Korea.

"It's very clear they view North Korea as a clear and present danger, a threat to long-term peace and stability not only in north-east Asia but also a threat to the US," Singapore's foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in an interview.


"They are looking for full compliance with UN Security Council resolutions on the part of North Korea, as well as with all the sanctions that have been imposed by the UN. All the Asean countries were able to give them an assurance that we are all fully on board and will comply fully and strictly" he said.

Singapore was already in full compliance, he said.

Another area of focus was economic ties between Asean and the US. "There's over 100 billion worth of American exports to our part of the world and this supports more than half a million jobs within the US" the minister noted. "The benefits are mutual."

"Even though the US has withdrawn from the Trans Pacific Partnership, there's a need nevertheless to focus on economic ties; South-east Asia is too big an opportunity to miss," he said.

While there was no detailed discussion on trade, the US's free trade agreement (FTA) with Singapore was raised as an example favourable to the US. "At this point of time, there is surplus in favour of America," Mr Balakrishnan said. "There is no anxiety on the part of America with respect to our specific bilateral FTA."

"The Americans have been very keen to emphasise that they are not against free trade," he added. "What they do want, and I have some sympathy for their point of view, is market access. They want free, fair and reciprocal arrangements."

"At a more political level, we need to understand that you can't just make arguments for free trade in the abstract. Ultimately, it has to create jobs, it has to expand opportunities, it has to uplift the standard of living of your citizens," he added. 

"If we keep the fundamentals in mind, we can make progress and look forward to greater economic integration across the entire Pacific."

"I'm not pessimistic," he said. "I believe the administration as a whole remains committed to free trade."

The ministers wound up their two days in Washington, where they met with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, members of Washington's policy and think tank community, and the US-Asean Business Council, with a 45-minute meeting with US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.

Even as they discussed greater collaboration in intelligence and operations to counter extremism and terrorism, they cautioned Mr McMaster - a former general - not to allow the response to extremism and terrorism to come across as anti-Islamic.

In a statement a the end of the two-day trip, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: "Asean Member States and the US affirmed the importance of the Asean-US Strategic Partnership in maintaining regional peace and stability and agreed to further strengthen relations."

Separately in an interview, Mr Alexander Feldman, CEO of the US-Asean Business Council told The Straits Times: "There is a recognition by the Trump administration that (South-east Asia) matters."

"It's not just these two days, it is part of what appears to be a developing strategy that puts Asean squarely in the centre of US policy in Asia."