MANILA, Philippines – Alarm over North Korea’s missile tests, a tentative step to temper South China Sea disputes, and unease over a disastrous siege by pro-Islamic State group militants will grab the spotlight at annual meetings of Southeast Asia’s top diplomats and their Asian and Western counterparts.
The 27 nations participating in three days of talks and photo-ops in Manila starting Saturday include the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and South and North Korea.
The Philippines is host as this year’s chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. It’s an unwieldy 10-nation collective of democracies, monarchies and authoritarian regimes founded half a century ago in the Cold War era which prides itself on being a bulwark of diplomacy in a region scarred by its history of wars and interminable conflicts.
A look at the main issues expected to dominate the meetings:
South China Sea
Chinese and ASEAN foreign ministers are to endorse a two-page framework for a long-sought code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea when they meet Saturday. The Philippines calls the framework a major step in efforts to ease potential flashpoints.
Critics say the outline of key principles is lopsidedly in China’s favor and suspect that Beijing may have consented to it to divert protests as it tries to complete and fortify man-made islands in the South China Sea with a missile defense system.
While the framework carries hope for a diplomatic approach to the territorial disputes, it notably fails to mention China’s land reclamation or an arbitration ruling last year that invalidated the historic basis of Beijing’s claim to virtually the entire sea, a strategic waterway for commerce and defense. China has dismissed the arbitration ruling, which was sought by the Philippines, as a sham.
Backed by the United States, the Philippines was the most vocal critic of China’s assertive actions in the contested region until President Rodrigo Duterte took power last year. He moved swiftly to rekindle ties with Beijing in hopes of boosting trade and securing infrastructure funding and sidelined efforts to secure Chinese compliance with the ruling.
Beijing’s cozier ties with Manila under Duterte have calmed tensions and prompted China to allow Filipino fishermen to return to a disputed shoal, but arbitration proponents worry that Duterte squandered an opportunity to restrain aggressive acts in the disputed region.
A draft of a joint communique to be issued by the ASEAN ministers welcomes the conclusion of talks on the framework, but drops any mention of regional concerns about land reclamation and moves to militarize the South China Sea, which ASEAN members included in previous statements.
Following North Korea’s recent tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the U.S. and its allies quickly signaled their intention to impose additional sanctions on it with a U.N. resolution. Along with South Korea and Japan, the U.S. is expected to lead condemnations of the launches at the ASEAN Regional Forum, annual security talks to be held Monday. North Korea has confirmed that its top diplomat, Ri Yong Ho, will attend, raising the specter of a verbal showdown in the 27-nation forum, which also includes North Korea’s main ally, China.
Ahead of the meeting, a senior State Department official told reporters in Washington that the U.S. is moving to have North Korea suspended from ARF for violating its conflict-prevention objectives. It’s part of a broader American effort to isolate North Korea diplomatically and force it to abandon its missile tests and nuclear weapons program.
Removing North Korea from the grouping, however, would be tough. There is no exclusion procedure and ARF decides by consensus, so any U.S. move against North Korea could be defeated by any country, including China.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said he would consult fellow ASEAN ministers after dinner Friday about the call for North Korea’s removal and suggested there may not be a consensus. “It would be more prudent to consult the other members and I predict there will be two sides to it,” he told reporters.
The ARF ministers are expected to express grave concern over North Korea’s ICBM tests, along with previous missile launches and two nuclear tests in 2016. They will repeat calls for North Korea to immediately comply with its obligations under U.N. resolutions and ask that it exercise self-restraint “in the interest of maintaining peace, security and stability in the region and the world,” according to a draft statement to be issued by the Philippines as ARF chairman.
“I think what we would expect to see this year at the meeting would be a general chorus of condemnation of North Korea’s provocative behavior and pretty serious diplomatic isolation directed at the North Korean foreign minister,” said U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton.
North Korea will respond by saying that “its nuclear weapons program is an act of self-defense against a hostile policy towards it,” the draft statement says.
The ASEAN meetings are being held under heavy security in Manila as thousands of Philippine troops attempt to quell a siege by Islamic State group-linked militants that has dragged on for more than two months in southern Marawi city. The fighting has left nearly 700 people dead, including more than 520 gunmen, and displaced the entire population of the mosque-studded city.
The Marawi crisis has triggered concerns that the Islamic State group may be gaining a foothold in Southeast Asia through allied local militants as it faces major setbacks in Syria and Iraq.
The ministers at ARF will strongly condemn “recent acts of terrorism” without mentioning Marawi by name and reiterate their commitment to counterterrorism, according to the draft ARF communique. Those steps include promoting moderation and using social media “to counter the spread of terrorists’ narratives online.”
Duterte made an unannounced trip to Marawi on Friday to rally the troops. “I hope you will be able to clean up Marawi city and get rid of the terrorists,” he told them in a speech.
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