Vietnam challenges China at ASEAN talks

A North Korean flag flies alongside those of other Asean countries and dialogue partners outside the Philippine International Convention Center in Manila, where Asean foreign ministers are meeting this weekend.

Before the ASEAN meetings, Paul Dibb, professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, wrote in the East Asia Forum that there has not been such a period of profound strategic anxiety in the region since the Vietnam War.

If the arrival of Tillerson in the region was meant to indicate a renewed interest in Southeast Asia for the Trump administration, the bloc's statement on the South China Sea indicates it may well be too late.

The U.S., Australian and Japanese foreign ministers have called for a halt on land reclamations and military actions in the South China Sea and compliance with an arbitration ruling that invalidated China's vast claims to the disputed waters.

A Southeast Asian diplomat said yesterday that Vietnam had pushed for stronger language despite opposition from numerous ministers, whose countries rely heavily on China for trade and investment.

The United States' top diplomat for Asia says countries in the region should suspend work on improving, expanding or militarizing outposts so that a diplomatic resolution for disputes over the South China Sea can move forward.

China is sensitive to even a veiled reference by Asean to its construction and arming of artificial islands.

China had always been perceived as delaying negotiations with ASEAN for the maritime code to allow it to launch and complete its land reclamations in the South China Sea without any such regulatory restrictions.

"It's clear that China's pressure on individual ASEAN governments has paid off", said Bill Hayton, an expert on the South China Sea and associate fellow with the Asian Programme at Chatham House in London.

Thornton says the USA wants to ensure that with the new sanctions, there's "not this kind of episodic back and forth that we've seen". China saw Vietnam as pushing for that language to be included in the statement, they said.

Foreign ministers of member states of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Saturday ignored Washington's call to downgrade diplomatic ties with North Korea, choosing instead to reiterate its "grave concern" over regional tensions.

Wang said at a news conference in Manila that those three conditions include non-interference by "outside parties", obviously referring to the United States, which Beijing has frequently accused of meddling in the territorial disputes.

Ahead of Tillerson's trip, the top American diplomat for Asia said the US was expecting a "general chorus of condemnation of North Korea's provocative behavior" as well as "pretty serious diplomatic isolation directed at the North Korean foreign minister".

The foreign ministers of North Korea and South Korea spoke face-to-face at a gala in Manila Sunday night, according to South Korean media reports, at a time of heightened tensions over Pyongyang's weapons programs.

"There's still no consensus", one of the diplomats said, adding the disagreements over the wordings on the sea issue were holding up the release of the communique.

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