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International relations

Suspicion and tension blight Asia's security landscape

North Korea denuclearization and South China Sea remain friction points

SINGAPORE -- The two most important Asia-Pacific security issues, North Korea's denuclearization and the South China Sea, continue to generate suspicion and friction between regional neighbors, a meeting of senior defense officials in Singapore showed on Saturday.

The second day of the annual gathering, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, began hours after U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12 as originally planned.

The denuclearization of North Korea was one of the key topics at the dialogue, an annual military conference organized by a London think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"The upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit will be a historic occasion to put an end to the history of war and confrontation on the Korean Peninsula and bring about a new era of peace and prosperity," South Korean Defense Minister Song Yong-moo said in his speech. "We must make full use of this precious opportunity to achieve an outcome that everyone desires."

However, some in the audience cast doubt on the likelihood of complete denuclearization as well as the intentions of Kim.

"Do you really think North Korea will give up nuclear weapons?" one questioner asked Song. Another asked: "What gives you confidence in endurance of Kim Jong Un regime?"

"If we continue to suspect Kim Jong Un's motives, any kind of developments will be hindered by suspicions," Song responded. He added that he believed North Korea would embrace the concept of complete denuclearization if other countries were sincere about the process.

South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo addresses the forum in Singapore on June 2. (Photo by Simon Roughneen).

In contrast, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera spoke in more skeptical tones. He said that "what is important is not to reward North Korea just because the country agreed to have a dialogue." He stressed that the only way to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula is to press North Korea to act toward complete verifiable, irreversible denuclearization and dismantle its ballistic missiles of any range.

Another regional issue that reflected ongoing tensions during Saturday's discussions was the potential for conflict in the South China Sea.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in his morning speech criticized China, saying, "China's policy in the South China Sea stands in stark contrast to the openness our strategy promotes." Pointing out what he described as China's militarization of the sea by installing missile defenses on man-made islands, Mattis said that "the placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion."

An aerial view of China-occupied Subi Reef, part of the Spratly Islands chain in the South China Sea.   © Reuters

In the question-and-answer session following Mattis' speech, a Chinese delegate responded that it was the U.S. that posed a "provocation" to China's security and integrity.

Disputes between the U.S. and China emerged elsewhere during the meeting. Lt. Gen. He Lei, deputy president of the Academy of Military Science of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, said the military bases being developed in the disputed waters were only for China's self-defense.

U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan responded: "I don't think Chinese claims are recognized by international law."

In a separate session, a Vietnamese delegate also appeared to criticize Beijing's activities in the South China Sea without naming the country. "Militarization activities in some key areas have undermined confidence among concerned parties, hampering efforts to resolve disputes by peaceful means," said Nguyen Duc Hai, a defense ministry official.

China and Southeast Asian countries have started negotiations on establishing a code of conduct in the sea. But at this moment "countries have not gotten to the point where they have a set of rules completely accepted by everyone in the region," said Sarah Teo, associate research fellow at the Nanyang Technological University.

Nikkei staff writer Mayuko Tani contributed to this story.

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