Asia-Pacific foreign ministers discussed their responses to the coronavirus pandemic, South China Sea disputes, the North Korean nuclear issue and Hong Kong affairs at an online meeting hosted by Vietnam on Saturday.

The 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum, including the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the United States, China and Japan, is one of the very few multilateral events attended by North Korea’s foreign minister almost every year.

With escalating Sino-U.S. tensions impacting security risks and economic structures in the region, the world’s two major powers were expected to clash in the meeting over matters such as China’s military activities in regional waters and human rights.

Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said at the outset of the forum that it is important to reduce security risks by creating mutual trust amid an increasingly complicated regional situation.

Vaccine development may also be a source of conflict between the United States and China at the gathering, while remarks by North Korea, which has not carried out ballistic missile tests for more than five months, will be of interest.

However, this year’s regional meeting could prove to be relatively low-key, given that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon are absent. Other senior officials from the respective nations participated.

Beijing has rapidly built artificial islands with military infrastructure in the South China Sea, further chilling relations with the United States which has been intensifying its offensive against the Asian power over security issues.

Washington said in July that it is taking a tougher stance against Beijing’s maritime assertiveness, calling its claims to offshore resources across most of the contested waters “completely unlawful.”

In late June, meanwhile, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, China’s top legislative body, enacted a security law for Hong Kong that bans acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces in the former British colony.

On July 14, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an order to fully end the special treatment extended to Hong Kong under U.S. law, saying that he will hold China accountable for its “oppressive actions” against the people of the territory.

From North Korea, An Kwang Il, ambassador to Indonesia, participated in the security forum instead of the foreign minister. The nation’s economy has been hit hard by the global virus pandemic and natural disasters.

The ARF comprises the 10 ASEAN states, China, Japan, the United States, Russia, North and South Korea, India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the European Union, Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, East Timor, Mongolia and Sri Lanka.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.


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