Tillerson to seek action on North Korea during Asia meeting

US president Richard Nixon toasts with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in Beijing in 1972. Handout

US president Richard Nixon toasts with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in Beijing in 1972. Handout

Tillerson made an appeal for all parties to stop militarisation, construction and reclamation of land in the South China Sea while talks are ongoing, in reference to Asean and China's dialogue to have a binding code of conduct in the hotly-contested area.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the USA will pursue national security and economic interests before turning to human rights concerns in its relationships with other countries, signalling a shift in Washington's global outlook. "And they wanted to make it clear early on that as a strategic partner - ASEAN has been a strategic partner of the USA - they wanted to continue with the United States administration, the new administration, this partnership, this relationship, and to ensure sustained U.S. engagement in the region".

He also called on countries to suspend or downgrade diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, saying it abuses diplomatic privileges to help fund the arms programs.

Tillerson told reporters at the start of the Washington meeting that he and his counterparts would discuss North Korea.

All ASEAN members have diplomatic relations with North Korea and five have embassies there.

Murphy stressed ties with Pyongyang are a sovereign matter for ASEAN states, but confirmed that Tillerson had urged them to review their positions. He said China has an "important role" to play, and ASEAN has not yet discussed reducing the North Korean diplomatic presence in their countries.

A United Nations panel of experts report on North Korea released in February highlighted North Korea's use of a Malaysia-based front company to sell military radio equipment in violation of sanctions.

U.S. foreign policy, Tillerson said, is guided by fundamental values, but he cautioned: "If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we've come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests". "Our immediate concern is that the tension in the (Korean) peninsula does not increase, because the more it increases the more danger of some kind of miscalculation".

But, Trump said, "We'd love to solve things diplomatically but it's very hard".

Tillerson to seek action on North Korea during Asia meeting
Tillerson to seek action on North Korea during Asia meeting

He also warned that Washington would sanction foreign firms and people conducting business with North Korea if countries did not act themselves. "They recognized the need for full implementation of all relevant UN Security Council resolutions", she said.

He pointed out that on the part of the ASEAN countries, it was a very genuine, heartfelt request to engage with the U.S. having recognized that Washington just had a political transition.

"Southeast Asia is replete with economic opportunities and it's too big to miss out on", he said. They want a sustained US presence in the region - which Obama promised them as part of his "pivot" to Asia - to counter China's military assertiveness and growing economic dominance over its neighbors.

Manalo called the meeting with Tillerson and Trump's travel plans "encouraging" signs.

China approved United Nations sanctions targeting North Korea's nuclear program, but American observers believe Chinese banks are continuing to give Pyongyang access to worldwide finance. USA officials are also asking China to urge more China-friendly ASEAN members, such as Laos and Cambodia, to do the same.

President Trump's phone conversations with the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore on North Korea were also ways of shoring up support against the looming North Korean threat.

-In Asia, he said the USA has prepared new sanctions on North Korea.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said the South China Sea issue is neither a problem between China and ASEAN, nor between the US and ASEAN. Murphy said such operations would continue, but declined to say when the next might occur.

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