Dialogue Is Key in Probe of Downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Diplomats Say
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Left to right, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, Brunei Foreign Minister Pehin Dato Lim Jock Seng and Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong at the Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyidaw Friday. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
NAYPYITAW, Myanmar—Southeast Asian diplomats said Friday that they won’t pressure Russia over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, trying to keep an Asian security summit that includes Moscow focused on dialogue and the need for cooperation in an investigation.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations raised the issue in discussions among themselves Friday but will keep the focus during wider talks this weekend on the need for a transparent investigation.
The Asean Regional Forum will be attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is also expected to attend. So are their counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea and other powers with interests the region.
K. Shanmugam, Singapore’s minister of foreign affairs, told reporters that “Asean is not proceeding with Russia as the guilty party.”
The Boeing 777 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile July 17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight. The U.S. and Ukraine have said the missile was fired by rebels backed by Russia, a charge Moscow denies.
The unstable security situation in the area has repeatedly stalled an investigation on the ground, though most the bodies have been recovered and transported to the Netherlands for forensic identification following intense backdoor diplomacy by Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister.
Malaysia hasn’t adopted a confrontational stance against Russia but demanded free access to the crash site for investigators. Malaysia’s attorney general has said the country has the right to prosecute the people who fired the missile.
Malaysia will chair a bilateral Asean meeting Saturday with Russia. Asean operates by consensus and seldom takes a confrontational approach in relations with the bigger powers with a footprint in Asia.
“Don’t expect any statement or pressure on Russia,” said Ye Htut, Myanmar’s information minister. “The Asean Regional Forum is not to force any other country. It’s about mutual respect and dialogue.”
Malaysian officials weren’t immediately available for comment.
The downing of Flight 17 followed the disappearance March 8 of Flight 370 dwith 239 people on board over the Indian Ocean for reasons that remain unknown.
Earlier Friday, Malaysia’s state investment arm Khazanah Nasional Bhd, which owns nearly 70% of Malaysia Airlines, disclosed a US$430 million plan to take the loss-making flag carrier private, a first step in a restructuring that could force layoffs and board changes.
The three-day meeting in Myanmar’s capital will also discuss the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China has increasingly pressed military claims to nearly the entire sea and engaged in a tense two-month standoff with Vietnam by moving an oil-exploration vessel into the disputed waters. China withdrew the vessel last month but has asserted its companies were within their rights.
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, all Asean members, also have claims, as does Taiwan. Asean has been divided in recent years between members who want to push a stronger unified position against China and others that don’t. A Code of Conduct to avoid escalation of disputes has stalled for a decade.
China has proposed some measures that it describes as “low hanging fruit” that will be discussed, Mr. Shanmugam said. He didn’t disclose details.
Mr. Shanmugam said that Asean nations believe that “substantive moves” are needed on the code of conduct. He also said that every nation has an interest for incidents in the disputed area to be “contained.”
“You need to start looking at what can be done to move ahead,” Mr. Shanmugam said. “There is consensus on trying to move on the code of conduct.”
The U.S. is expected to back a demand by the Philippines for a temporary moratorium on all activities in the disputed area. Mr. Shanmugam said the U.S. call wasn’t discussed Friday.