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Support over N. Korea to feature high on agenda

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Asean foreign ministers meeting Tillerson in Washington aiming to enhance US engagement

Support from Asean for robust implementation of sanctions against North Korea is likely to figure prominently when visiting Asean foreign ministers meet US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson today (US time).

Otherwise, the agenda aims to enhance US engagement with Asean under the Asean-US Strategic Partnership, including economic integration, maritime cooperation, transnational security challenges as well as training and technology.

The meeting will also set off preparations for the East Asia and Asean Regional Forum meetings in Manila in August.

This year is the 40th anniversary of US-Asean relations, and the strategic relationship, trade and investment are thriving.

According to the White House website, Asean countries are collectively the US' fourth-largest trading partner.

With US President Donald Trump having ordered last Saturday a review of trade agreements, several Asean countries are keen on the direction of the US' trade policy.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea will also feature.

"The region very much wants to know where the US is going to stand on the South China Sea and - more broadly - what its approach to China is going to be," Ms Amy Searight, a former top US defence official for the region, told the Washington Post.

Senior State Department official Patrick Murphy told reporters last week the US would continue freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, which were conducted periodically under former US president Barack Obama but have not occurred since Mr Trump took office in January.

The Asean foreign ministers will meet National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster the day after their meeting with Mr Tillerson.

Since the meeting with the ministers was planned a month ago, the US focus on North Korea has sharpened.

The US wants "all members of the international community to fully implement relevant United Nation Security Council Resolution sanctions on North Korea, suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea and take steps to isolate North Korea financially," a spokesman at the State Department's East Asia and the Pacific office told The Straits Times.


There is now a recognition in Washington that dealing with North-east Asia requires Asean as well, analysts said.

"In the last month or so, we have seen a sort of Trump pivot to Asia, which is a positive thing," Mr Ernie Bower, chief executive officer of consultancy Bower Group Asia, told ST.

Mr Lee Sung Yoon, professor of Korean Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston, told ST: "There is a real need to re-engage South-east Asian countries on the North Korea issue in a constructive way.

"There is certainly room for that. For example, Singapore and Malaysia have diplomatic relations with North Korea, and private entities have business relations with North Korean entities.

"The more united Asean countries are in enforcing sanctions, the better positioned the US will be in negotiating with North Korea." 

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