At the first gathering of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, that he has attended since becoming America’s top diplomat, Mr. Pompeo’s priority was to push countries to enforce U.N. sanctions on North Korea.
He called out China over allegations that it was smuggling goods into North Korea and Russia over allegations that it was promoting North Korean businesses. China didn’t respond directly to Mr. Pompeo’s comments, and Russia denied the allegations.
Pyongyang, meanwhile, issued a terse warning that President Trump “will face difficulties” unless the U.S. takes steps to build trust between the two countries. The North Korean statement accused Washington of retreating to an old mode of “repeated failures,” and the country’s delegation subsequently shunned potential meetings with U.S. and South Korean officials in favor of talks with China.
The Chinese Embassy released a lengthy readout of the joint meeting, describing “new vitality” in a long history of shared friendship between Beijing and Pyongyang.
Mr. Pompeo and North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho exchanged a few brief words and a quick handshake, and the U.S. delegation delivered a letter from Mr. Trump to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a reply to an earlier letter.
Mr. Pompeo’s hosts in Singapore, meanwhile, were eager to shift the weekend discussion to the widening tariff battle between the U.S. and China.
Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, said the dispute “precisely illustrates why Asean needs to remain united,” and the economic bloc vowed to double down on trade pacts to minimize the damage in the region, which is particularly exposed to fallout from the fight.
President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact last year in one of the first acts of his presidency. The remaining 11 TPP countries went on to sign a deal without the U.S. in March.
Mr. Balakrishnan urged the 10 Asean nations to quickly conclude talks for a Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement that includes China and Japan, but not the U.S.
Mr. Pompeo defended Mr. Trump’s decision to implement tariffs on China.
“President Trump inherited an unfair trade regime where American workers and American companies were not treated reciprocally or fairly by the Chinese,” Mr. Pompeo said.
But the secretary of state offered few assurances to regional leaders whose economies rely on trade with both economic powers.
Southeast Asia is deeply tied to global supply chains in industries specifically targeted by the U.S.-China trade dispute, such as electronics, agriculture and cars, and regional economies are likely to be hit especially hard if the dispute intensifies.
China threatened on Friday to increase its tariffs to $110 billion worth of U.S. imports. Mr. Trump has threatened to apply tariffs to all $505 billion worth of Chinese imports to the U.S.
At Asean, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi issued a harsh assessment of the trade dispute.
“A heavy blow has been dealt to the free trade regime and the development prospects of countries in this region as well as the well-being of their peoples have come under threat,” he said. “There needs to be a collective response.”
He also criticized a U.S. announcement about a $113 million investment in regional economic development that Mr. Pompeo had described as a “down payment” on a new era of U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.
“I expected the U.S. to offer a figure in billions,” Mr. Wang said. “My first reaction was that I must have heard it wrong.”
China has poured billions of dollars into the region as its economic might and regional influence have grown.
Mr. Pompeo also sparred with Mr. Wang over who was to blame for growing tension in the South China Sea.
Mr. Pompeo flagged concern about China’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea and said there needed to be a rules-based order. The Chinese said the U.S. was at fault and that Beijing was only acting in self-defense.
“Certain non-regional countries, mainly the United States, have been sending massive strategic weaponry into this region,” Mr. Wang said. “I’m afraid that is the biggest force behind a push for militarization in this region.”
Asean also pushed back on U.S. concerns about Iran, signing a treaty of amity and cooperation with Tehran. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, attended the forum and held a flurry of meetings on the sidelines to reinforce the need to preserve the nuclear deal that Iran and six world powers, including the U.S., agreed to in 2015. Mr. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal and Washington is set to implement more sanctions on Iran on Monday, with others following on Nov. 4.
Mr. Pompeo told reporters aboard the flight back to Washington on Sunday that his team had accomplished its objectives.
He said it was helpful to talk one-on-one with several of the region’s foreign ministers to emphasize the U.S.’s commitment to the region.
“I think they appreciated hearing that directly from me,” he said.
Mr. Pompeo insisted that despite the current tariff fight with China, the U.S. goal for Southeast Asia was to achieve free and open trade.
“The tariffs, the barriers, you see what [the Chinese] do to U.S. businesses who want to come operate in China. They deny them the same set of rules,” he said. “We welcome them. We’re open. They need to be the same.”
Mr. Pompeo also played down North Korea’s statement at the Asean meeting that criticized the U.S. approach to talks.
“Compare the anger frankly over years and years of hatred spewed by the North Koreans, [North Korean Foreign Minister Ri’s] comments were different,” Mr. Pompeo said. “Comments aside for a minute, the mission statement is very clear,” he said.
Write to Jessica Donati at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the August 6, 2018, print edition as ‘U.S. Faces Pushback in Asia on Policy.’