US Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic portfolio switched from Middle East diplomacy to North Korea and the Syrian crisis when he landed in Brunei yesterday for a Southeast Asia security conference.
The tiny sultanate in the South China Sea, where he will attend the ASEAN Regional Forum, is the last stop on Kerry’s two-week tour of seven countries in Asia and the Middle East. He landed yesterday morning in Brunei’s capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, after flying overnight from Tel Aviv, Israel, where he spent four days in long meetings trying to get Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
On the sidelines of the ASEAN conference, Kerry is scheduled to have a lengthy chat with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that likely will center on the Syrian crisis and Moscow’s decision not return National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden back to the US to face espionage charges.
“I am actually anxious to get there and to engage with him because the situation in Syria is grave,” Kerry said on Sunday in Tel Aviv.
Russia is a key backer of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is fighting rebel forces armed by the US and other nations.
“Clearly, part of my conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Russians will be how we can maximize our efforts together to have an impact on this,” Kerry said. “I’m not going to go into greater detail with respect to that conversation, but I very much look forward to meeting with Sergey Lavrov when I get there.”
Kerry is also scheduled to have talks on the sidelines of the meeting with his counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea and other Asian nations.
Pyongyang is expected to send longtime North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun to the conference and nations attending the forum are expected to reiterate a call for denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
Many want North Korea to abide by its obligations under UN Security Council resolutions and commitments it made following six-party talks in 2005.
Because the ASEAN forum gathers diplomats from all six parties involved in long-stalled nuclear disarmament negotiations — the US, China, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas — it has previously served as a venue for informal, sideline talks to break stalemates over the nuclear issue.
Other issues expected to loom large in Brunei are the South China Sea territorial disputes, and relations between the US and China.
China has territorial disputes with Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines in the South China Sea and its potentially oil and gas-rich islands. Several claimants want group discussions in order to create a legally binding “code of conduct” to prevent clashes at sea, but Beijing has not clearly stated when it will sit down with the 10-nation ASEAN bloc to discuss such a nonaggression pact.