By Felipe Villamor
Southeast Asian foreign ministers concluded their annual meetings in Singapore this week, with China agreeing to a draft of a code of conduct to govern disputes in the South China Sea topping the talks and North Korea on Saturday expressing alarm over Washington’s impatience on the issue of denuclearization.
In their traditional statement at the end of Thursday’s meeting held in Singapore, the diplomats welcomed North Korea’s pledge to completely denuclearize as well as affirmed a commitment to boost the fight against terrorism.
But, two days later, the United States’ and North Korea’s top diplomats traded barbs after exchanging pleasantries, with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho delivering a scathing remark warning that Pyongyang would not be bullied into concessions.
The 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) reaffirmed “freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea,” where China has raised regional concerns by expanding the islands it control in the region and militarizing them despite agreements not to rock the boat.
Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, said that talks on the code of conduct began in March and first draft was completed in June during talks held in Changsha, China. While he declined to reveal details of the documents, Balakrishnan said the development should be considered a “milestone.”
“Now just to clarify, this doesn’t mean that negotiations are over, but we’ve been able to put everything down onto a single draft and this draft will form the basis for subsequent negotiations,” he told reporters Friday.
Citing sensitivity of the talks, Balakrishnan said ASEAN and China were now in a position to accelerate the process.
“I think everyone is glad that we’ve reached this stage, everyone also hopes that we’ll be able to accelerate the process, but we’re not yet in a position to put a specific deadline,” he said.
“And in the nature of these negotiations, sometimes it’s better to maintain sufficient flexibility, so that nobody feels locked in, or that their interest will be overridden in a roughshod manner,” he said.
His Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, called the development a “breakthrough” as he let off a veiled dig at the United States, which has been conducting “freedom of navigation” passages in the disputed waters in a show of strength and raised alarm over what it perceives as alarming actions at sea, including China’s installation of surface-to-air missiles in islands it claims.
“We believe that without any disturbances from the outside, COC consultations will accelerate,” Wang said, referring to the code of conduct.
The ministers also hailed “practical measures” that could help reduce tensions and avoid the risk of accidents, including a “hotline” between foreign ministries of China and ASEAN claimants.
China and ASEAN are to hold their first joint maritime exercises two months from now, as both sides raised their security cooperation a notch higher. As a lead up to that, dozens of sailors from both sides took part in a two-day, table-top exercises in Singapore that concluded Friday. They worked on cooperation scenarios involving search and rescue during a mock ship collision.
Washington as an ASEAN ally
The United States has long been an ASEAN ally, and has in the past repeatedly rallied behind smaller countries at the receiving end of what it has called China’s bullying tactics.
On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said Washington would continue to help the region which he considered a “vital part of the world that continues to grow in importance.”
He said Washington was offering a new funding of up to $300 million for security cooperation in the region, including in efforts at boosting maritime strength and developing humanitarian and peace-keeping capabilities.
Pompeo said he met individually with his counterparts in the region, and found a “deep commitment” in support of an open Indo-Pacific, which he described as region “where every country can have true opportunity to compete, to transit their goods, in a way that is not dominated, not threatened by any one member of ASEAN or any country in the region.”
Shared efforts at stopping terrorism
Pompeo said he had also received an update on terrorism and security in the region, where some of ASEAN members have been grappling with attacks linked to the Islamic State.
He made the statement after the Philippines suffered a car-bomb attack that killed 10 people on Tuesday, just as the Singapore meetings got underway.
The ASEAN ministers, in a communique, affirmed their commitment to combat the “scourge of violent extremism, radicalization and terrorism” through national and regional levels.
The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia has an ongoing “cooperative arrangement” to combat terrorism, including shared efforts at stopping terrorist fighters from crossing borders, the ministers noted.
Diplomatic, economic pressure on Pyongyang
While Pompeo welcomed the role that Singapore played in hosting the historic summit between the United States and North Korean leaders in June, he said diplomatic and economic pressure must be maintained on Pyongyang to ensure that it lives up to its promise of dismantling its nuclear weapons.
“It is clear our partners and allies within ASEAN know how important the denuclearization of North Korea is for their own security,” he said.
But Ri, the foreign minister of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), criticized Washington for undermining confidence in North Korea’s “determination and commitment” to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
“In order to build full confidence between the DPRK and the U.S., it is essential for both sides to take simultaneous actions and phased steps to do what is possible one after another,” the Associated Press quoted Ri as saying during a closed-door session at the regional forum. “Confidence is not a sentiment to be cultivated overnight.”
Pompeo had already left the meeting when Ri delivered his fiery remarks. He is in Jakarta, where he is scheduled to meet on Sunday with Indonesian leader Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
At the regional meeting, the American delegation handed a letter from President Donald Trump to Ri. The letter, intended for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was Trump’s reply to a letter he received from Kim earlier this week, Pompeo said.
Pompeo briefly met Ri Saturday during a joint photo session with ministers ahead of the day’s main forum. The pair shook hands, smiled and exchanged some words, according to Agence France-Presse.
While the encounter was brief, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described it as a “step in the right direction” given where US-North Korea relations were a year ago.
As he arrived in Jakarta, Pompeo posted comments on his Twitter page describing his meeting with the North Korean diplomat.
“We had a quick, polite exchange,” Pompeo tweeted. “Our US delegation also had the opportunity to deliver (Trump’s) reply to Chairman Kim’s letter.”