SINGAPORE - The United States flexed new muscle in Asia Thursday with pledges to counter China's expansion in a contested sea and set up a second summit with the leader of North Korea, which Washington regards as a military threat to Western allies.
"We all agree that empire and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific," U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Singapore.
U.S.-North Korea summit in 2019?
In a meeting after the summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Pence said U.S. President Donald Trump would meet reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for a second time after January 1. The pair met in June after more than a year of missile tests by the authoritarian government of Pyongyang and thunderous criticism from Washington.
"One thing President Moon did tell me that he believed, as President Trump believes, is that Chairman Kim wants to do something very significant here," Pence told reporters in response to a question from VOA Thursday.
South China Sea dispute
Pence is attending the ASEAN 2018 Summit, an annual gathering by heads of state from 10 Southeast Asian countries. Members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam claim parts of the South China Sea - a waterway contested by Beijing, which has landfilled and militarized islets over the past decade.
Pence said Thursday he would discuss this week "steps" with Southeast Asian leaders to improve their "security."
His comments on the South China Sea were likely aimed at reassuring Southeast Asian countries that it would keep Beijing in check, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's public policy school. China has rattled other claimants by landfilling and militarizing some of the sea's once uninhabited islands over the past decade.
ASEAN leaders leave the stage following a group photo at their summit in Singapore, Nov. 14, 2018.
China has offered loans and aid for infrastructure throughout Southeast Asia - some believe to stop recipient countries from challenging its maritime expansion. Washington probably plans to send more navy ships to the sea to show it's open to all countries, Araral said. China usually protests those moves.
"Any form or reassurance that the U.S. hasn't abandoned ASEAN and China is not the only player in town would be a good reassurance," Araral said. "But how these assurances translate into action could be a touchy issue. I think there's a gap between the words and the deeds. China doesn't talk that much, but you see them, boots on the ground."
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang also raised the maritime issue at the November 11-15 summit and side events. China and ASEAN are preparing a code of conduct aimed at avoiding mishaps at sea, he said. But Li surprised some when he said earlier in the week the code would take another three years, not just one as expected after the 2017 summit, to finalize.
"Given the impact of the South China Sea issue on the smooth development of relations between China and some ASEAN countries, we all made active efforts to overcome this potential hindrance," Li said at the China-ASEAN summit, as quoted by Beijing's official Xinhua News Agency.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang addresses participants of the ASEAN summit in Singapore, Nov. 13, 2018.
Playing to Southeast Asia's quest for stronger external trade links - an area Pence said little about this week - Li expressed support for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade liberalization pact led by ASEAN. The deal that includes economic powerhouses China and India would cover one-third of the world GDP. The U.S. government opposes multi-country trade deals.
"We look forward to the early and substantive conclusion of negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that contributes to the building of more robust and effective supply and value chains in the region," Li said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is leading a delegation to the ASEAN summit this week to vie with other powers for business opportunities in fast-growing Southeast Asia as his homeland's fuel-reliant economy struggles.
"I think he's trying to push Russian business around the region," said Song Seng Wun, economist in the private banking unit of CIMB in Singapore. "So he's certainly seeing opportunities. And the Japanese are pushing business, the Chinese are pushing business. Global growth may be slow, but this region is still looking to expand by a fairly decent pace."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center left, listens to his adviser Yuri Ushakov, center right, as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, right, looks on, during the ASEAN summit in Singapore, Nov. 15, 2018.
The world economy grew 3.15 percent last year. ASEAN countries grew at an average 4.8 percent.
Putin described as "useful" his delegation's role in a summit investment forum, according to the Russian news agency TASS. Russian technology might find a market in Southeast Asia, Song said.
Russia-ASEAN trade grew 35 percent in 2017. Putin "envisages" nearly 60 joint projects in Southeast Asia under a "roadmap of business cooperation," TASS said.