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Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush, speaks during a panel discussion at the Asia-Pacific Geo-Economic Strategy Forum in Singapore on Oct. 25. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

'One in four chance' US will use force against N Korea: Armitage

Panelists urge calm and deeper American engagement in the region

TOMOMI KIKUCHI and JUSTINA LEE, Nikkei staff writers | China

SINGAPORE -- Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said there is a "one in four" chance the U.S. will resort to "discreet military action" to contain nuclear and other military provocations from North Korea. He made the statement during a panel discussion in Singapore on Tuesday.

"Diplomacy is still the first issue on the table but if I have to bet, there is one in four chance of some discreet military action," said Armitage at the Asia Pacific Geo-Economic Strategy Forum organized by Nikkei, the Center for Strategic International Studies, and the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Gary Roughead, former U.S. chief of naval operations, who gave a keynote speech at the event, took a slightly stronger tone on the issue. "Pressure on the North Korean regime must include the possible use of military force," Roughead said. He emphasized that for the U.S. and its allies, "relying on defensive measures alone is not likely" if an attack is on the horizon. "I cannot conceive of any nation's leader relying only on defensive measures if the annihilation of a city is a possibility," he added.

Gary Roughead, former chief of U.S. naval operations (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

From Japan, Iwao Horii, parliamentary vice-minister for foreign affairs, expressed the view of the Japanese government that there is a "need to raise the pressure to the highest possible level" to stop North Korea's nuclearization. "We have learned from our past experience that dialogue for the sake of talking just allows North Korea to buy time," Horii said.

The two speakers from the U.S. shared some critical views over U.S. President Donald Trump's approach to diplomacy. Hinting on the numerous online verbal attacks by the U.S. President Trump toward other countries, Roughead urged leaders to use "less inflammatory rhetoric" and "fewer or no tweets nor derogatory monikers." Armitage echoed such sentiments, saying that although Trump himself likes to call himself a "deal maker," "thus far, he has much more been a deal breaker; he is breaking deals in Cuba, Iran, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and maybe the North American Free Trade Agreement."

From left to right: Moderator Amy Searight, Nguyen Tam Chien, Gen Nakatani, Kishore Mahbubani, Iwao Horii and Richard Armitage. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

While the panelists generally agreed that the continued U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific contributes to the region's peace and stability, some urged the U.S. to step up its efforts for deeper engagement, especially with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. "Any time an American president has some crisis somewhere, what do they do? They cancel their participation in an ASEAN meeting," said Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, during the panel discussion. He noted that Trump is expected to miss the East Asia Summit during his upcoming visit to Asia. "In Asian culture, face is very important. Every time you skip an ASEAN meeting, you send out a signal that says, 'I don't respect you,'" he said.

While China has deepened economic ties with ASEAN through trade and investment, some panelists warned that China could abuse its power to change the status quo in geopolitical conflicts, including territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Referring to land reclamation by China in its self-proclaimed "nine-dash line" in the South China Sea, Gen Nakatani, former defense minister of Japan, said, "It looks to me like China is becoming more assertive in hanging on to their national interests because of the larger power it has." He added, "We have to continue to voice what is right and urge them to abide by international laws; otherwise, [China] can build on their position one step at a time."

Nguyen Tam Chien, senior adviser at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, shared his view that Vietnam is hoping to work with China by prioritizing its economic pursuits. "Our higher priority is economic. That is why [in the] South China Sea crisis, Vietnam doesn't [look for] war or conflict." Mahbubani echoed Chien's view, saying that China "has been careful not to push [its nine-dash line claims] hard." The South China Sea issue "will not be resolved but managed," he added.

Other issues mentioned by the participants included the rise of terrorism in the world. Singapore's Senior Minister of State Maliki Osman said in his speech that this threat "is unlikely to go away in the short term." "We are thus getting our population psychologically prepared for such attacks, and ensuring that the multiracial and religious harmony which underpins our society will endure," he said.

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