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That ASEAN ‘summit’ with US in Bangkok



MORE than most other groups of people in the world, Asians are said to be very sensitive to seemingly condescending attitudes and actions of other people. This may explain what happened in Bangkok, Thailand, during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit early this week.

Aside from the ten-nation ASEAN meeting of its top officials – mostly prime ministers and presidents – of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, there is an ASEAN+3 Summit with Japan, China, and South Korea and an ASEAN+6, adding Australia, India, and New Zealand.

US President Trump was to meet with the ASEAN leaders last Monday, but he sent Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross instead, along with National Security Adviser Robert Obrien. Evidently resenting Trump’s decision to skip the meeting, sending instead low-ranking officials, seven of the ten ASEAN leaders boycotted the meeting and sent lower officials. President Duterte sent Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

Only three ASEAN leaders thus met with Secretary Ross – host Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-cha, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith. Secretary Ross read a speech of President Trump inviting the ASEAN leaders to Washington, DC, for a “special summit” early next year. Despite Trump’s absence, US business and government officials sought to emphasize US commitment to the region in a conference attended by some 1,000 ASEAN officials.

Earlier last Sunday, the ten ASEAN leaders met with China Prime Minister Li Keqiang who attended the summit in behalf of President Xi Jinping. Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korea President Moon Jae-In later joined the ASEAN leaders in an ASEAN+3 sum­mit.

Some US officials, it is said, considered the partial boycott of the ASEAN leaders of the meet­ing with the US representative as an attempt to embarrass Trump who is facing impeachment proceedings in the US Congress. More likely, their decision to just send representatives was simply a response to Trump’s sending a minor US official. He could have sent Vice President Mike Spence; he was at last year’s ASEAN Summit in the Philippines. Or he could have sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who handles America’s foreign affairs. Instead Trump sent the secretary of commerce and the national security adviser.

The absence of seven of the ten ASEAN leaders at the meeting with the US secretary should not be seen as an official foreign relations position of the seven nations. It was merely individual Asian leaders responding to a perceived slight. If President Trump was too busy to meet with them, they too had important matters to attend to.