U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson landed Saturday in Manila on his first official trip to Southeast Asia as the United States continues to call for a legally binding mechanism to prevent conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea from erupting into violent confrontations.
While in the Philippines, Tillerson will also seek greater cooperation from regional allies in isolating North Korea.
After a stern warning from China, Vietnam called off permission for an energy company to drill for gas in the South China Sea. It is the latest chapter in the ongoing dispute over the world’s most contested waterway that is believed to be rich in natural resources.
Foreign ministers from countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are expected to endorse the framework of a code of conduct on the South China Sea as they gather Manila.
While the framework is not legally binding, it commits to cooperation over confrontation and is also seen as bending to China’s influence.
The U.S. will continue to press for a dispute resolution mechanism and upholding freedom of navigation.
“Destabilizing actions, such as Chinese land reclamation, construction and militarization of disputed features, makes it harder for the region to resolve these disagreements peacefully,” Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said.
Tillerson wants to work with China on differences without leading to open conflict. Among them is stepping up pressure against North Korea.
“There is no future where North Korea holds nuclear weapons or the ability to deliver those nuclear weapons to anyone in the region much less to the homeland. In doing so, we’ve sought to partner with China. China does account for 90 percent of economic activity with North Korea,” he said recently.
Tillerson will be walking a fine line with the Southeast Asian bloc, seeking assurances from them to isolate Pyongyang without creating a perception that North Korea overshadows their concerns in the South China Sea.
"And the fact is, North Korea matters a lot less for Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines than the South China Sea does, which is right at their front door,” Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.
Others warn regional allies are starting to believe they may not get practical support from Washington in the South China Sea disputes. Bill Hayton of research organization Chatham House said, “They felt that the Trump administration couldn't be relied upon to protect Vietnam’s interest in such a confrontation, so it is a sign that governments in Southeast Asia are concerned that the Trump administration isn’t interested in defending their interests."
Besides maritime security and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, regional counterterrorism is said to be also high on the ASEAN agenda.