MANILA -- The issue of North Korea's nuclear ambitions, which have increasingly alarmed its regional neighbors with its frequent missile tests, will be front and center at high-level meetings taking place in the Philippine capital in the next few days.
Foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations will kick off a series of meetings on Saturday, and will meet with dialogue partners such as the U.S., China and Japan on Sunday. On Monday, 14 more parties, including Russia, South Korea, North Korea and the E.U., will join them at the ASEAN Regional Forum.
Washington on Thursday called on countries participating in the ARF to downgrade their engagement with North Korea, and pressure it to abandon its nuclear program.
"I think what we would expect to see this year at the meeting would be a general chorus of condemnation of North Korea's provocative behavior and pretty serious diplomatic isolation directed at the North Korean foreign minister," said U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton.
The Philippines, this year's ASEAN chair, does not appear supportive of the idea of isolating North Korea from the ARF. Robespierre Bolivar, a spokesperson for the Philippine foreign ministry, said it is important to keep diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang.
"Aside from the U.N., the ASEAN Regional Forum is the only venue where you have around the table the DPRK, the Republic of Korea, Japan, China, Russia, the U.S., the European Union and ASEAN," Bolivar said, referring to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name.
"It is the only venue we have thus far to promote candid and free flow [of dialogue] and to actually express our concerns to the DPRK side in a face-to-face manner," he added.
A draft joint communique shows Asean ministers are poised to "express grave concern" about North Korea's testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles on July 4 and 28 as well as similar moves in the past. They are also expected to call for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Ministers will also discuss the South China Sea territorial dispute, Malaysia's foreign ministry said. On Saturday, foreign ministers from China and ASEAN are set to endorse a framework for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
The framework, which has been in the works for 15 years, is a basic and general outline for the formulation of rules in preventing conflicts in the South China Sea. China and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims to the critical waterway.
A draft communique also made no mention of China's large-scale land reclamation activities and militarization in the South China Sea. This is a diplomatic win for Beijing, which has previously said the maritime dispute has no place in ASEAN meetings. The Philippines, since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte last year, has aligned itself with China, and has avoided criticizing Beijing in exchange for billions of dollars in economic aid.
Counter-terrorism will also be a key item on the agenda in the meetings, amid an ongoing siege in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, parts of which are still controlled by Islamic State-linked militants, 74 days after fighting began on May 23.
Nearly 600 people have died in one of the worst terrorist attacks in the country, which has forced Duterte to declare martial law on the island of Mindanao.