Cooling North Korean heat and the South China Sea 

opinion May 29, 2017 01:00

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Something strange happened at last week’s meeting among senior officials from the Asean Regional Forum in Manila.

The North Korean delegation headed by Bang Kang Hyuk was mellow and did not respond to debates about the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. It was rather unusual that senior North Korean officials would let such an opportunity go by without any rebuttal or comment.

Perhaps, this latest development could indicate that Pyongyang is slowly changing and it is in the process of trying to win back friends in the ARF, especially the Asean member states.

Of late, Asean has been at the centre of gravity due to the call by US leaders including President Donald Trump and US State Secretary Rex Tillerson to help ease tension on the Korean Peninsula. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, as the current Asean chair, has responded enthusiastically, pledging to do whatever the group can to work with Pyongyang.

Truth be told, deep down Asean is worried about spillover effects of the US-North Korea tension. Asean is willing to contribute to trust-building to ensure stability in this part of the world. For decades, Washington has been guarded about any possible Asean role whenever the issue was raised within the various Asean security dialogues, including the East Asia Summit. Before Trump came to power, the US feared that the group’s engagement could be a spoiler as the group has its own problems to resolve and might tamper with the dedicated process of diplomatic pressure that the US heads. Now, it is obvious that the US needs its friends and allies in the region to chip in whatever they can to reign in North Korea and bring stability to Northeast Asia.

Surin Pitsuwan, former Asean secretary general, was succinct in calling recently in Tokyo that since all members of the six party talks – the US, Japan, China, Russia, North Korea and South Korea – are inside the Asean Regional Forum, this unique platform should be utilised for the sake of peace and stability. Pyongyang was admitted to the ARF in 2000 and signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2008. At the moment, 35 signatories are committed to this regional code of conduct, which denounces the use of force, among other principles.

Given the friendlier atmosphere at the ARF senior official meeting last week, there could be some broadening of Asean roles in the ongoing Korean crisis at the upcoming ARF foreign ministerial meeting during the first week of August in Manila. Foreign ministers from ARF states will spend a day discussing regional and international issues. At this juncture, China, Japan and South Korea have a positive view of Asean’s role in the Korean crisis due to the close ties between North Korea and Asean. Half of the Asean states have diplomatic missions there. And North Korea’s behaviour will also be closely watched by Asean members and its dialogue partners. They would be willing to engage with Pyongyang only when there are tangible improvements to warrant new moves.

Asean also wants to see North Korea give up its push for nuclear weapons as soon as possible. All Asean countries are within range of Pyongyang’s existing and newly developed medium- and long-range missiles. After the incident in February at Kuala Lumpur Airport, where Kim Jong-nam was assassinated, Asean states felt much more uneasy about their friendship with Pyongyang. That helps explain why Asean joined the international community in expressing serious concern over North Korea’s repeated testing and firing of missiles in violation of resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council.

At the moment, any improvement in relations between Asean and North Korea would send a strong signal to the grouping’s dialogue partners, especially the US, China, Japan and South Korea that Pyongyang may be gradually changing and that political dialogue and diplomacy should be the key to resolving the current conflict.

The call for more Asean engagement also comes at the time when Asean’s ties with China are on an upswing due to the prevailing friendlier atmosphere under the Philippine chair. After the summit in Florida between Trump and his counterpart, Chinese President Xi Jingping, as far as regional issues were concerned, the focus of US-China ties has visibly shifted from disputes in the South China Sea to the Korean Peninsula. But the urgency has had impact on overall Asean-China ties, which has been like a roller-coaster ride. Therefore, the agreed framework for a code of conduct in South China Sea will serve as a needed platform to renew and rebuild confidence between Asean states and China, which essentially will lead to peaceful management of disputed maritime areas. Beijing must not miss this window of opportunity.

The COC’s substance and legal nature of all provisions will eventually determine the future path of Asean-China relations in decades to come. The frequently asked question is whether China will be able to regain the trust that Asean had in Beijing before. For the past 25 years, their ties were excellent. Now, ties are no longer in the same mode. Both sides have learnt some hard lessons from their diplomatic rows at both regional and international level, and their consequences. At present, as Asean-China ties enter a new 25-year cycle, divergent views and and policies are coming to the fore. Extraordinary goodwill and resilience will be needed on both sides to recapture the glory and confidence of ties as in the past. Thus, for Singapore, the country coordinating with China on the code, the remains months are crucial to lay down all 

necessary groundwork for a timely completion of the COC and solidifying future friendship.