HONOLULU — The recent decision by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to skip the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) ministerial-level dialogue this Friday in Vientiane represents a setback for U.S. efforts to persuade Southeast Asians that Washington really cares about their region. Rice plans to send her highly regarded deputy, Robert Zoellick, instead.

Zoellick had a very successful visit to six Southeast Asian nations in May, but the secretary’s decision to skip her first opportunity to meet face to face with all her Asian counterparts has been widely reported as “an unnecessary snub.”

ARF was established in 1994. Although neither Warren Christopher nor Madeleine Albright — secretaries of state during the Clinton years — had a perfect attendance record, Rice’s immediate predecessor, Colin Powell, attended all four ARF meetings during his time in office, finding them “very, very useful” not only for promoting regional multilateralism but also for providing the opportunity to meet people on the sidelines. Powell used such meetings, for example, to restore dialogue with a North Korean counterpart and to sign a joint declaration with all 10 foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations promising cooperation in the war on terrorism (in which Southeast Asia remains a “second front.”)

The reaction to Rice’s “snub” has been predictable: “Condoleezza Rice: Too busy to care about Southeast Asia?” read one headline. “The country’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, apparently doesn’t consider the region important enough to warrant her personal attention,” cited one news report, further opining that “for her to stay away in her first year as the top U.S. diplomat could damage U.S-ASEAN relations at a time when there are concerns about China’s growing influence in the region.”

ASEAN Secretary General Ong Keng Yong tried to put a positive spin on the news, stating that “Bob Zoellick knows the region well and he will do an excellent job.” He acknowledged, however, that “the Lao hosts are still trying to persuade her to attend,” further observing that her failure to appear “will be seen as unfortunate.”

One country that is no doubt delighted by the announcement is China. Rice’s absence will make the shadow cast by the presence of her Chinese counterpart all the larger and more significant. In contrast to Washington, Beijing has been conducting a diplomatic offensive in Southeast Asia.

Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines in April, and National People’s Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo visited Singapore and Malaysia in May.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing met with his ASEAN colleagues at the Asia-Europe ministerial meeting in Kyoto in May. Earlier in the year, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Indonesia, where he met with ASEAN colleagues attending a special leaders meeting on tsunami relief efforts.

Beijing, unlike Washington, has also acceded to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, making China eligible to attend this December’s first East Asia Summit in Malaysia.

By contrast, Rice made a quick 18-hour visit to Thailand “to show how much the United States cares about Southeast Asia” during her early July swing through Northeast Asia. In Phuket, in response to repeated questions, she explained, to virtually no one’s satisfaction that “other essential travel . . . in roughly the same time frame” precluded her participation.

Southeast Asians are reserving judgment on the State Department’s new assistant secretary for East Asia, Christopher Hill, who made his first official visit to the region in late May to attend the preparatory ARF Senior Officials Meeting. While the affable Hill reportedly made a good impression with his ASEAN colleagues, many have expressed concern privately about his Northeast Asian and European orientation — he was previously ambassador to Poland and then South Korea, and is currently dual-hatted as senior U.S. representative to the six-party talks and thus chief negotiator with North Korea.

These concerns were reinforced, no doubt unintentionally, when Hill rushed off after the Vientiane meeting to Europe for an “EU-U.S. Strategic Dialogue on East Asia” that focused, not surprisingly, on Northeast Asia issues. In response to a question that implied that the U.S. was concerned that multilateralism in East Asia “might reduce its bilateral leverage,” Hill asserted that “we are very, very much supporting multilateral structures in Asia.” Southeast Asians would have appreciated this comment more, however, had it been delivered in Brunei rather than Brussels.

Some pundits are tying Rice’s decision (in my view incorrectly) to continuing U.S. dissatisfaction with the ASEAN’s handling of the contentious issue of Myanmar’s scheduled assumption of the ASEAN chair in mid-2006. (Laos, as current chair, will host the July 2005 ARF meeting in Vientiane before handing the chairmanship to Malaysia, which will host the summer 2006 meeting before yielding the chair to Myanmar, alphabetically next in line.)

The U.S. has made it clear that it will not send senior officials to any meeting chaired by Yangon. Informal discussions with ASEAN officials tell me that a deal has already been reached for Yangon to announce its intention to skip its turn in the chair, but this has yet to be confirmed.

If Rice’s decision to skip this year’s ministerial is aimed at putting pressure on ASEAN to culminate this agreement, this is likely to backfire. Regardless of its intent, Rice’s decision, if not reversed, may deflate the U.S. threat not to attend future meetings; it may also encourage wavering ASEAN members to reduce or retract their pressure on Myanmar. At a minimum, a Rice no-show will undermine the Zoellick/Hill message that the U.S. intends to stay engaged in Southeast Asia.

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