MANILA: Escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula may be “far away” from Singapore, but the “human price will be horrendous” should there be miscalculations or if hostilities break out, said Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Friday (Apr 28).
Dr Balakrishnan was speaking to Singapore media shortly after a meeting of ASEAN’s foreign ministers. They issued a statement expressing “grave concern” over North Korea and urging Pyongyang to comply fully with obligations under United Nations Security Council resolutions adopted in the wake of the North's repeated missile launches and its nuclear tests over the past two years.
Their response came a day after it was reported that Pyongyang sent a letter to the bloc’s Secretary-General, urging ASEAN member nations to support it in its row with the US. US President Donald Trump had said on Thursday that there is "absolutely" a chance that the US and North Korea could have "major, major conflict", although his administration would love to solve things diplomatically.
When asked what leverage ASEAN had in easing the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Dr Balakrishnan said: “ASEAN does not have leverage. What we have at best is moral suasion and we join the rest of the world in urging North Korea to comply … The key protagonists involved, I hope, will not miscalculate and will understand that we need a diplomatic solution, we need confidence-building measures on both sides and not to allow this to spiral out of control.”
Elaborating on the importance for dialogue, Dr Balakrishnan told local media that talks, which are probably ongoing, have to occur “among parties concerned”, with the main stakeholders being North Korea, South Korea, China and the US.
He said ASEAN can only hope parties exercise self-restraint and uphold international law and encourage them to do so. “That is really as far as we can go, as far as diplomacy is concerned,” Dr Balakrishnan said. “We need to make sure everyone does not miscalculate and overreact; does not lead us into a path of horrendous human consequences.”
SOUTH CHINA SEA CODE OF CONDUCT FRAMEWORK ON TARGET FOR COMPLETION
On the topic of the South China Sea, Dr Balakrishnan said ASEAN foreign ministers “were happy with the progress” made on the framework for the Code of Conduct. The framework, he said, is an essential pre-requisite for the Code of Conduct which parties will have to be legally bound by. “I'm reasonably confident that we will get it done by the middle of this year,” he said.
“I think there's a strong sense of common will on the part of all parties to this to get it done and it's important for building confidence and reducing the temperature in the South China Sea. The world is not short of crisis and issues all over the world and we don't need problems in the South China Sea,” he added.
Dr Balakrishnan also responded to criticism that ASEAN is taking a “softer” tone on events occurring in the South China Sea. This includes China’s building of artificial islands in the resource-rich waters. Critics said the move amounts to increasing militarisation of the region, although China’s response is that it is doing so for civilian reasons.
Said Dr Balakrishnan: “I wouldn’t want to characterise this as a softer or harder tone. But things are moving in a positive direction.” He added that the key is in settling the framework, and that could lead to “further negotiations on a substantive legally binding Code of Conduct”.
Dr Balakrishnan said another key point raised during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting was their upcoming meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington next Thursday. He said ministers would want to emphasise that it is important that the US continue its engagement with the region.
ASEAN is a vital area with many business opportunities and the US “should not deprive itself of the opportunities that ASEAN represents”, the Singapore foreign minister said.