AP Nonthaburi, Thailand, Nov:5 Seven Southeast Asian leaders skipped an important meeting with the United States on Monday after President Donald Trump decided not to attend their regional summit in Thailand.
Rather than Trump, the U.S. sent recently appointed national security adviser Robert O’Brien to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gathering. The move contrasts with other allies of the 10-member regional bloc who sent their heads of government.
Only host Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-cha of Thailand and the prime ministers of Vietnam and Laos joined O’Brien and the foreign ministers sent by the other countries. The annual meeting of ASEAN leaders allows Southeast Asian leaders to deal as a group with the world’s major powers, leveraging their influence in making security and trade arrangements. The rise of China in recent years makes the meeting a field of rivalry between Beijing and Washington, which both seek to cement relations with a region of major geopolitical and economic importance.
That Trump chose not to attend and not send Vice President Mike Pence or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to take his place left a diplomatic vacuum for other global leaders to fill, such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and especially Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. The meeting with the U.S., which takes place on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, normally draws presidents and prime ministers. It could be perceived that by sending their foreign ministers the missing leaders were snubbing O’Brien, who Trump anointed his “special envoy” to the meeting just outside Bangkok.
“My guess is the leaders will attend the meetings when their counterparts are here,” Philippine Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez told reporters. “It’s just a matter of proper balance.” During the meeting, O’Brien read a letter from Trump, who invited ASEAN leaders to a “special summit” in the U.S. early next year. ASEAN is made up of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Together, they comprise a fast-growing regional market of nearly 650 million people.
At the annual gathering the ASEAN leaders meet in their own summit then separately meet their counterparts from outside the bloc including the U.S., China, Japan, Australia and India. ASEAN leaders welcomed what they said was the conclusion of seven years of negotiations for a massive free trade deal called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Officials, however, said there were still final issues to be resolved by the 16 countries involved in the trade deal before it can be signed early next year.