WASHINGTON - The United States underscored its commitment to Asean at a lunch on Thursday (May 4) for visiting foreign ministers of the ten-member regional group hosted by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said it intends to build a way forward and grow the economic relationship.
Mr Tillerson told the ministers the US was also committed to upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. And he asked the ministers to review diplomatic relationships with North Korea and fully implement United Nations sanctions to cut off the Pyongyang regime's revenue stream.
Eight Asean foreign ministers, including Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, were at the meeting. Myanmar's Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi sent her National Security Advisor, and Vietnam sent its Deputy Foreign Minister.
The meeting came on the back of a trip to Jakarta last month by Vice President Mike Pence during which he visited the Asean secretariat. During the trip he confirmed that President Donald Trump would attend the East Asia and US-Asean summits in the Philippines in November.
Mr Tillerson also met with Asean ambassadors in Washington last month.
Mr Danny Russel, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, and now Diplomat in Residence and Senior Fellow at the Asia Society, tweeted: "Big week for #ASEAN under the Philippines Chairmanship: Manila Summit, Trump invites, & Foreign Ministers visit Washington on Thursday."
In a phone interview, Mr Russel said the Trump administration had recognised that Asean was a valuable partner and "we have a huge interest in promoting Asean unity and connectivity."
Unsurprisingly however, the issue of tension on the Korean peninsula dominated the 45 minute lunch meeting.
Speaking later to reporters, Mr Patrick Murphy, the State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia, who was at the meeting, said: "We really want to double down and bring the UN Security Council resolutions into full force."
The US wants countries including Asean to make efforts to "deny the revenue streams that North Korea has enjoyed around the region, and to take a look at diplomatic relations, to minimise them so that North Korea does not gain benefit from its diplomatic channels for its nuclear and missile aspirations," he said.
"I think on this issue a considerable common ground was identified," he added. "Today was a good example of hearing how the region is increasingly unified on this issue."
In an interview with National Public Radio on Friday, Mr Balakrishnan said: "We've repeatedly urged North Korea to fully comply with UN Security Council resolutions. On our part and on the part of all South East nations we intend to fully comply."
Singapore had no diplomatic mission in Pyongyang and there were only a couple of North Korean diplomats in Singapore, so relations were already minimal - and authorities would not tolerate North Korea using the country for illicit financial transactions, he said.
Speaking to reporters later on the sidelines of a forum at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Philippines' Acting Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo said the ministers had not discussed scaling back diplomatic relations with North Korea. But he added: "That's probably something to look at."
"Our immediate concern is to ensure that the tension on the (Korean) peninsula doesn't increase because the more it increases the more there is a danger of a miscalculation," he said. "The best way is through dialogue."
On the issue of the South China Sea, Secretary Tillerson had noted that the US and Asean were aligned on principles and objectives, Mr Murphy said.
"We want to ensure that air and maritime transit is free, and the Asean partners that we have can count on the United States to assert these rights for us and for all," he said.
On the thorny issue of trade, Mr Tillerson told the ministers the US wanted to have a dialogue on the issue of trade imbalances and work together to find a solution. "The US is not looking to impose solutions," Mr Murphy said.
On the phone, Mr Russel told The Straits Times the biggest takeaway from the meeting was "the fact that at a very early stage of a Trump administration under the banner of America First, there is substantive face-to-face engagement between the Secretary of State and the foreign ministers of Asean."
"It is a powerful affirmation that South-east Asia matters to the US, and the US matters to South-east Asia," he said.