US President Donald Trump yesterday named Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, Robert O'Brien, as his special envoy to the United States-Asean Summit and the East Asia Summit, which will be held this weekend.
According to the US embassy in Bangkok, Mr O'Brien will be accompanied by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who will be the senior representative for the United States government at the second annual Indo-Pacific Business Forum in Bangkok.
Secretary Ross will also lead an executive trade mission to Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam from Monday onwards.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, Chulalongkorn University's political scientist and chairman of the security advisory committee for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, said Mr Trump's choice of representative reflects the US' priority is security in the Asean region.
"There are no other critical issues which they need to push for [in the region] at the moment," he said.
While he concedes Mr Trump's absence may dent the profile of the summit, Assoc Prof Panitan said there are a number of factors that needs to be taken into account.
"President Trump's participation [in summits] are complicated, and have many times in the past ended in a confrontation," he said.
"Considering the current situation in the international sphere, heads of state may decide to opt out of any events, if they see the possibility of an open confrontation [with their rivals]."
Assoc Prof Panitan also said the fact the US Secretary of Commerce will be attending and meeting prominent figures in Thailand's business sector should be seen as a US willingness to talk and negotiate to resolve trade issues, such as Thailand's suspension from the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) scheme.
However, Piti Srisangnam, director of Chulalongkorn University's Asean Studies Centre takes a harder stance on Mr Trump's decision to skip the summit.
"Sending someone without the authority to make decisions to a summit shows the US does not see Asean as important," he said, adding this does not bode well for the US' Open and Free Indo-Pacific Strategy.
"The US may see its influence in the region decline."