US SECRETARY of State Rex Tillerson will host a meeting with Asean foreign ministers in Washington next month, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy said on Thursday.
In a briefing via teleconference to international journalists, Murphy said Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to the Asia Pacific, including Indonesia showed that the US gave importance to this part of the world.
In regard to this, Pence announced that President Donald Trump was committed to going to Vietnam for the Apec Leaders Meeting and to the Philippines for the East Asia and US-Asean Summits, all of which take place in November.
“[It is] a very welcome announcement by our friends and partners and allies across the region,” Murphy said. But he declined to make clear whether Trump himself would be present at the summits.
November was six months down the line and some time away, Murphy said. There were a lot of issues around the world to contend with and even in the region that time arrived, he said.
The meeting between Tillerson and his Asean counterparts on May 4 would be an important opportunity to discuss the challenges, opportunities and US cooperation in the region again, before the more formal meetings in August in the Philippines, he said.
Ministers from both sides could range from proliferation to terrorism to maritime disputes in the |contentious South China Sea, Murphy said.
Members of Asean have been at loggerheads with China over its moves in the South China Sea for a long time. Tension has built up in the sea as all parties, including China, the Philippines and Vietnam have built artificial islands and other facilities that can be utilised for military purposes.
The US is not a claimant but has made a clear stance to back freedom of navigation in the contentious sea.
“We believe that the South China Sea should be the scene of unimpeded commerce and travel. And many countries –, the entire international community for that matter – rely a great deal on unimpeded travel and commerce through this region,” Murphy said in the briefing.
“We will continue to sail and fly where international law permits. I think that’s our longstanding policy and that remains the case,” he said.
There would be many other issues to be discussed in Washington between both sides. The meeting would emphasise that the new |US administration under Trump would not abandon Asean.
“I think on the part of the Asean countries, there was a very genuine, heartfelt request to engage with the United States.
“We hear consistently from them that they value US engagement and presence in the region. And they wanted to make it clear early on that as a strategic partner – Asean has been a strategic partner of the United States – they wanted to continue with the United States administration, the new administration, this partnership, this relationship, and to ensure there is sustained US engagement in the region,” Murphy said.