Tillerson tells China to 'step up' on N Korea

SYDNEY: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (second left), Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (left), US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (right) and Australia’s Defense Minister Marise Payne (second right) take a garden walk at Government House during the 2017 Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) yesterday. —AFP

SYDNEY: Top US and Australian officials warned yesterday that battle-hardened and angry foreign fighters may return to Southeast Asia from the Middle East and take up arms in their own countries. The warning follows the weekend terror attacks in London, which were claimed by the Islamic State group, and comes amid a growing jihadist threat in the Philippines. IS fighters will "come back with battlefield skills, they'll come back with hardened ideology, they'll come back angry, frustrated, and we need to be very aware of that," Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne said.

She was speaking at an Australia-US ministerial summit also attended by Pentagon chief Jim Mattis, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop. Reacting to the London attacks, Mattis said: "We are united... in our resolve, even against an enemy that thinks by hurting us, they can scare us. Well, we don't scare." US President Donald Trump has instructed the Pentagon to "annihilate" IS to try to prevent foreign fighters from escaping and returning home as they lose ground in Iraq and Syria.

The aim is to encircle and kill as many militants as possible in place, rather than letting them exit a city and targeting them as they flee. This reflects an increasing urgent attempt to stop the fighters bringing their military expertise and ideology back to the West. "Before, we were shelling them from one town to another," Mattis said. "We now take the time... to make certain that foreign fighters do not stay to return to Paris, France, to Australia, to wherever they came from, and bring their message of hatred and their skills back to those places and attack innocent people."

The issue of countering terrorism was high on the agenda at yesterday's annual talks. Australian officials say they have prevented 12 terror attacks on home soil since 2014 with more than 60 people charged. In the Philippines, hundreds of civilians are trapped by fighting between the military and Islamist militants who have overrun the city of Marawi on the restive southern island of Mindanao. Separately, Tillerson said a decision on whether to send additional troops to try to stabilize the security crisis in Afghanistan was still under review.

   North Korea

Meanwhile, Tillerson said China and other nations must strengthen efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear weapons program, while also calling out Beijing over its South China Sea activities. America's top diplomat, speaking after talks in Sydney, also gave a brief response to the unfolding crisis in the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt have all announced they are severing ties with gas-rich Qatar.

In the Asia-Pacific region, the United States has spent recent weeks trying to reassure allies it can maintain a tough line against China's "militarization" of the South China Sea while at the same time seeking help from Beijing. Trump - who frequently denounced China on the campaign trail - has turned to Beijing to help rein in ally North Korea's weapons program, prompting concern among Asian allies that America might go easy on the South China Sea territorial dispute.

"We desire productive relationships," Tillerson said after annual discussions with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop in Sydney. "But we cannot allow China to use its economic power to buy its way out of other problems, whether it's militarizing islands in the South China Sea or failing to put appropriate pressure on North Korea." He said China and other regional partners should "step up" efforts to help solve the North Korea situation, because it presents a threat to the "entire world".

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea despite partial counter-claims from Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. It has rapidly built reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes. Tillerson reiterated US and Australian commitment to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea to "ensure unimpeded flow of lawful commerce in a rules-based order".

But reporters asked Tillerson if America was applying a double standard in telling countries to adhere to the international order while simultaneously pulling out of a trans-Pacific trade deal and the Paris climate accords - moves that prompted even longstanding allies to question whether America was retreating into isolationism. "That's why we're here, that's why we travel to the region, that's why we engage with our counterparts," Tillerson said, standing alongside Mattis, Bishop and Payne. We "travel to the region to meet with our counterparts and talk about all the issues that are important to them and hear from them concerns about where the (Trump) administration is positioned".

Responding to Tillerson's comments, China's foreign ministry urged "relevant countries" to support efforts by regional nations "to maintain peace and stability of the South China Sea, and play a constructive role in this regard rather than the opposite". Spokeswoman Hua Chunying, speaking at a regular Beijing briefing, also cited China's "enormous efforts" to reach a peaceful settlement of the North Korea nuclear issue.

'Remain united'

Addressing the situation in the Gulf, Tillerson called on countries there to stay united and work out their differences. "We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences," he said. "If there's any role that we can play in terms of helping them address those, we think it is important that the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) remain united." Riyadh cut diplomatic relations and closed borders with its neighbor Qatar to "protect its national security from the dangers of terrorism and extremism", the official Saudi Press Agency said.

Tillerson and Mattis both said they did not anticipate any impact on efforts by a US-led coalition to battle the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.  The coalition currently conducts much of its operational planning and coordination from Al-Udeid air base in Qatar. "I am confident there will be no implications coming out of this diplomatic situation at all, and I say that based on the commitment that each of these nations... have made to this fight," Mattis said. The US defense secretary blasted Iran for its "various destabilizing efforts" in the region, referring to Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Tehran's involvement in the Yemen war. - Agencies