MANILA — Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson will for the first time on Sunday be in the same room with his North Korean counterpart, and much of the world will be watching whether the two even acknowledge each other.
Joining them in Manila will be representatives of other countries with a stake in the regional confrontation, including China, Russia, South Korea and Japan. The occasion is the annual ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, which will be followed later this year by a meeting of the leaders of the organization’s nations. President Trump has promised to attend that meeting.
Mr. Tillerson and North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, are this year’s most intriguing pairing, and their diplomatic choreography — whether they avoid each other or sit down together — could set the course for the Trump administration’s moves on its top foreign policy priority for the rest of the year.
State Department officials said the two were not expected to meet privately. “The secretary has no plans to meet the North Korean foreign minister in Manila, and I don’t expect to see that happen,” Susan A. Thornton, the department’s acting assistant secretary for East Asia and Pacific affairs, said in a briefing on Wednesday.
But Mr. Tillerson’s first appearance at a departmental press briefing in Washington this past week and his unusually restrained comments about North Korea — he assured the North “the security they seek” and offered a new chance at economic prosperity if it surrenders its nuclear weapons — had some speculating that he might welcome a meeting with Mr. Ri.
On the other hand, Mr. Tillerson’s comments were accompanied by increased saber rattling from Washington directed at the North, with the United States testing an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile in the Pacific and flying two strategic bombers over the Korean Peninsula. In addition, Vice President Mike Pence said the two nations would not hold direct talks.
Victor Cha, who served as the Asian affairs director on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, said in an interview that Mr. Tillerson would want to show not only the North Koreans but the rest of the world that he was open to a dialogue with the North if only to prove that alternatives to tougher sanctions had been tried.
“But I don’t think the North is interested in talking,” Mr. Cha said. “They’re not really talking to anybody — not to us, not to the Russians, not even to the Chinese.”
And that is why Mr. Ri’s appearance in Manila is so unusual. Mr. Tillerson’s two-pronged approach, proposing talks while backing sanctions and military pressure, is likely to be evident this weekend in Manila as well. While he signaled this week an increased willingness to talk to the North with fewer preconditions, he is also likely to ask every diplomat he encounters in Manila to take steps to further isolate North Korea, Ms. Thornton said.
Indeed, the American delegation here intends to try to get North Korea expelled from future Asean meetings.
“Of course, it’s too late now to have that conversation since the meeting is upon us for this year, but we’ll continue to explore this and continue to, I think, push the organization to think about what kinds of suspension measures or requirements or stipulations might be included in the future,” Ms. Thornton said.
Mr. Tillerson is also expected to meet with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi. Throughout his campaign and his first months in office, Mr. Trump said China was crucial to curbing North Korea’s nuclear program.
“China should solve that problem for us,” Mr. Trump said last September.
Mr. Trump has since acknowledged that his efforts to get China to do just that had failed, and there are signs that the Trump administration intends to take a tougher line on China, particularly on trade issues, something Mr. Trump promised during his campaign but has eschewed in his first months in office.
Beyond North Korea, Mr. Tillerson is expected to tell Mr. Wang of Washington’s continued concerns about China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, which have unnerved countries in the region.
Before arriving in Manila on Saturday night, Mr. Tillerson stopped in Honolulu, where he was briefed by Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., commander of the United States Pacific Command, who has advised taking a hard line against Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
But the election of Rodrigo Duterte as president of the Philippines last year has shifted the terms of the dispute. Mr. Duterte has taken a far more conciliatory approach toward China than his predecessor did.
There is a widespread perception in the region that the Trump administration has little interest in Southeast Asia. The administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trading pact initially endorsed by 12 nations, to demonstrate the United States’ commitment to the region and as a way of pushing back against China’s growing influence and assertiveness.
But Mr. Trump rejected the pact in his first days in office and has yet to offer anything in its place.
“That Tillerson would come here and mostly want to talk about North Korea shows that there’s a problem because that’s not the subject we want to discuss at all,” said Victor Andres Manhit, president of the Albert del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Manila.
The top priority for Mr. Duterte is the fight against the Islamic State and its allies. An Islamist militant group has laid siege to the Philippine city of Marawi on the island of Mindanao, an embarrassing setback for Mr. Duterte, whose tough approach to crime is his signature issue.
Mr. Tillerson said this past week that fighters from the Islamic State had left Syria and Iraq and found their way to the Philippines.
“Nobody here really believes that,” Mr. Manhit said. “We think it’s an indigenous group with a clever branding campaign and not some boatload of fighters from Syria.”
But alarm about growing Islamist extremism in the region is expected to unite many of those attending the meeting.
“We are working together not just with the Philippines but other countries in the region to try to address the growing concerns and growing threats, frankly, of international terrorism,” Ms. Thornton said.
Powered by WPeMatico