U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered an “emphatic” message to foreign ministers from Southeast Asian nations that militarization and construction in the South China Sea must stop while territorial disputes in the area are worked out, a senior US official said.
Tillerson delivered the message—aimed at China, which has reclaimed thousands of acres of land in the South China Sea in recent years—during a lunch on Thursday with ministers of the Asean in Washington.
The top US diplomat urged “all parties involved to stop militarization, construction, reclamation of land in the South China Sea while talks are going on,” Patrick Murphy, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said on a call with reporters. “The secretary was quite emphatic about the need to stop these activities to give talks a good chance of succeeding.”
Tillerson’s remarks were more moderate toward China than President Donald J. Trump’s comments during the campaign, when he called out Beijing over its reef reclamation, currency manipulation and trade policies.
Since then, Trump has made clear he’s counting on cooperation with Beijing to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program and praised his relationship with President Xi Jinping, a move that could undercut any tough message from the State Department.
In his confirmation hearing in January, Tillerson compared China’s actions in the South China Sea to those of Russia in Crimea, saying a failure to respond had let China “keep pushing the envelope.”
“We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed,” Tillerson said, in remarks that critics said invited a military confrontation. He hasn’t repeated that formulation since then. The US is not a claimant in the South China Sea but has urged talks to solve the disputes. Southeast Asian nations are in talks with China for a code of conduct covering the waters, though progress has been slow.
During the meeting with Tillerson, the ministers stressed the importance of the peaceful resolution of the disputes, according to an Asean statement.
“We reiterated the principles previously agreed by our leaders and we call for the early agreement on the framework and expeditious conclusion of a code of conduct in the South China Sea,” the ministers said in the statement. A summit in Manila last weekend of Asean leaders ended with a statement noting “the improving cooperation between Asean and China” over the waterway.
Murphy said the US would continue the Navy’s “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea, though he declined to say when that might occur. Such operations, which have typically produced protests from Beijing, haven’t been undertaken since Trump took office, according to a Pentagon official who asked not to be identified discussing military movements.
“Our objectives remain very firm in this regard, and the United States will continue to assert its rights in the South China Sea,” Murphy said.
North Korea action
Tillerson also pressed Southeast Asian governments to ensure “leak-proof” enforcement of sanctions against North Korea and to prevent the pariah nation’s diplomats from conducting business that could benefit its weapons programs.
Tillerson called on foreign ministers of the 10-nation Asean to “minimize” the diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, “so that North Korea does not gain benefit from its diplomatic channels for its nuclear and missile aspirations,” Murphy said after Thursday’s meeting at the State Department.
That was the latest salvo in the Trump administration’s push to get the international community to intensify diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program before it can pose a direct threat to the American mainland.
Although China, North Korea’s traditional ally and main trading partner, is viewed as the key lever of international influence, Southeast Asian nations have diplomatic relationships with Pyongyang and small-scale trade ties, and have sometimes served as conduits for North Korean activities that violate UN sanctions. A recent UN report found that North Korean diplomats often play key roles in commercial activities banned under Security Council resolutions aimed at starving it of technology and revenue for its nuclear and missile programs.
“North Korea in many countries has a diplomatic presence that clearly exceeds their diplomatic needs,” Murphy told reporters.
He said, without providing specifics, that “considerable common ground was identified” between the US and Asean on North Korea. He said the February assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged brother at a Malaysian airport, using a chemical agent, illustrated the threat it posed “in the heart of Asean”. He said this has galvanized concern in the region.
Enrique Manalo, acting foreign secretary of the Philippines, said the way forward with North Korea was through dialogue and deescalation of tensions. He said China has an “important role” to play, and Asean has not really yet discussed reducing the presence of North Korean diplomatic presence in their countries.
“That’s probably something we’ll look at,” Manalo told reporters. “Our immediate concern is that the tension in the [Korean]peninsula does not increase, because the more it increases the more danger of some kind of miscalculation. The last thing we would really like to see is to have a conflict break out.”
Southeast Asia’s top diplomats are clearly seeking better ties with Washington, amid uncertainty over the Trump administration’s trade policy and its dealings with China. They have been heartened by President Donald Trump’s plans to attend an Asean-hosted summit in the Philippines in November and a regional economic summit in Vietnam.
Eight foreign ministers and two other senior officials from the 10 nations traveled across the world for the face-to-face with Tillerson. Broadly speaking, they want a sustained US presence in the region—which President Barack Obama promised them as part of his “pivot” to Asia—to counter China’s military assertiveness and growing economic dominance over its neighbors.
“We had a very good meeting: short, sharp and to the point,” Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told reporters. He emphasized the importance of economic and trade ties between the US and Southeast Asia.
However, long-standing US allies like the Philippines and Thailand have moved closer to China, complicating US hopes for unity on issues like control over the potentially resource-rich South China Sea. The Philippines, which is currently chair of Asean, has dialed back its once strong stance over China’s assertive behavior and island-building.
Murphy said the US remains committed to freedom of navigation and commerce in the South China Sea. He said Tillerson had urged all “relevant parties” to stop militarization, construction and reclamation there while Asean and China conduct talks—which have dragged on for years—aimed at framing a binding code of conduct to prevent conflict.
Trump has feted Chinese President Xi Jinping as he pushes for more cooperation against North Korea. Southeast Asian nations generally welcome cordial ties between the two powers but worry about whether secret deal-making might undercut Washington’s willingness to stand up to China, which claims virtually all the South China Sea and has conflicting territorial claims with four Asean nations.
Image credits: AP