Asia Pacific / Politics

U.S. blasts ASEAN 'effort to embarrass' Trump via partial boycott

Kyodo, AP

The United States has expressed concern with Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders for their “intentional effort to embarrass” President Donald Trump by partially boycotting an ASEAN-U.S. summit slated for Monday in Bangkok, a diplomat said.

“We are extremely concerned by the apparent decision” in relation to the ASEAN-U.S. summit, the diplomat quoted a U.S. message to ASEAN as saying.

The United States added the decision is a snub of Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien who was sent to a series of ASEAN-related summits in the Thai capital on the U.S. leader’s behalf.

“A full or partial boycott by ASEAN leaders will be seen as an intentional effort to embarrass the President of the United States of America and this will be very damaging to the substance of the ASEAN-U.S. relations,” the message said, according to the diplomat who was speaking on condition of anonymity.

The 10-member bloc has decided to downgrade part of its representation for the ASEAN-U.S. summit in response to Trump’s decision to skip the event.

The decision was made during a working dinner Friday night during which “ASEAN foreign ministers decided to form a troika of three leaders only” to meet with O’Brien, according to diplomatic sources.

On Sunday, ASEAN leaders confirmed the three-leader representation and that seven other member states would be represented by their foreign ministers, the sources said.

The troika is made up of the leaders of Thailand, the current ASEAN chair; Laos, the country coordinator for ASEAN-U.S. relations; and Vietnam as the incoming ASEAN chair for 2020.

Seven other ASEAN members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Singapore.

“ASEAN as a whole was unhappy with U.S. President Donald Trump who decided to skip the meeting,” an ASEAN source said. “They were of the view that Trump should at least send a representative who is in the Cabinet.”

The source added, “Such a gesture may set a bad example for other dialogue partners in the future.”

Trump’s absence has sparked concern about a lack of U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific at a time when China is increasing its clout in the region.

Most other countries are represented by their presidents or prime ministers, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang present in the Bangkok meetings.

Since taking office, Trump has only attended an ASEAN-U.S. summit once, in Manila in 2017, and has never attended full East Asia Summit meetings. Last year, Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence in his place.

In an apparent response to the veiled criticism, Trump has invited Southeast Asian leaders to a “special summit” in the United States early next year.

O’Brien included the invitation in a letter from Trump that he read at a U.S.-ASEAN meeting.

The move also came as U.S. businesses and other sections of the government sought to emphasize the American commitment to the region, with a privately led conference attended by about 1,000 business and government officials.

There, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross outlined a slew of figures on trade and investment between the U.S. and what Washington has dubbed the “Indo-Pacific region.”

“The Trump administration is extremely engaged in and fully committed to this region,” Ross told the meeting.