MANILA -- The ASEAN summit is shaping up to be a missed opportunity for participating nations to strengthen their unity against North Korea, as U.S. President Donald Trump's push for "reciprocal" trade with the region puts the issue on the back burner.
"We celebrate your incredible success, and we also seek economic partnerships on the basis of fairness and reciprocity," Trump told leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the start of their summit Monday. The U.S. had an $83.3 billion deficit in trade of goods in 2016 against the bloc, and the former business tycoon's remarks let the ASEAN leaders know that his focus was on rectifying trade imbalances.
A Philippine official who was present at Trump's meeting with ASEAN heads of state revealed in a press briefing that "there was no comment forthcoming from the U.S. president" on North Korea, adding that he felt it was "very apparent" that the U.S. was emphasizing trade.
Trump's stance put him at odds with countries like Japan and Australia, which had high hopes of forging a unified front against the rogue nation.
"We have the same values, the same focus in ensuring the North Korean regime comes to its senses and stops its reckless provocations of threats of conflict in our region," Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at the beginning of summit talks Monday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump.
Abe echoed his Australian counterpart's comments, saying North Korea is the "most pressing issue" for the region. He also reached agreement with Brunei and Indonesia in respective bilateral talks with their leaders to cooperate closely in dealing with the rogue nation.
Even the ASEAN countries, which all have diplomatic ties with the North, were vocal about their concern.
"We expressed grave concern over [North Korea's] ongoing development of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear and chemical weapons, and ballistic missile technologies," the 10 member nations said in a draft of the chairman's statement, noting that these developments "seriously threaten peace and stability in the entire region and beyond."
China's involvement is key
In dealing with North Korea, the focus was always on how to bring China and Russia on board, as these two nations have the closest links to Kim Jong Un's regime. America's full-on involvement already was a given. The U.S. has been a prime target for Kim, with the North Korean leader and Trump exchanging heated words on Twitter.
The chances of China committing to put more pressure on North Korea are scant, as Beijing wants to keep Pyongyang as a buffer against American troops stationed in South Korea. But Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is in Manila, which made the ASEAN meetings seem like the perfect opportunity for the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asian countries to collectively persuade the communist state.
Abe was proactive, holding an hourlong meeting with the premier in which he urged China to "play an even more constructive role" because Beijing "is crucial" in dealing with the problem. South Korean President Moon Jae-in also spoke with Li and reaffirmed their stance on resolving the issue peacefully.
But the U.S. again seems off the page, as reflected by Trump's comments Sunday during a news conference in Vietnam. The president said there was "a possibility" he could become friends with Kim and that such a turn "would be very, very nice," contradicting Washington's previous stance of putting "maximum pressure" on the North.
And while there is no denying that Washington still considers the issue as important -- North Korea was always high on the agenda during Trump's two-week Asian visit -- the U.S. leader's devotion to trade in Manila is proving to be a squandered chance for the region in restating its commitment to dealing with the Kim regime.
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