Leaders skip US envoy meet

Leaders skip US envoy meet

Seven Southeast Asian leaders on Monday skipped an important meeting with the United States after President Donald Trump decided not to attend their Asean Summit in Thailand.

Only host Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha of Thailand and the prime ministers of Vietnam and Laos joined Robert O'Brien, the recently appointed national security adviser Mr Trump sent in his stead, and the foreign ministers sent by the other countries.

During the meeting, Mr O'Brien read a letter from Mr Trump, who invited Asean leaders to a "special summit" in the US early next year.

In addition to Mr O'Brien, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also travelled to Bangkok with a trade mission that is touring the region.

The annual meeting allows Southeast Asian leaders to deal as a group with the world's major powers, leveraging their influence in making security and trade arrangements.

That Mr Trump chose not to attend and not send Vice President Mike Pence or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 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 US, 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 seven leaders were snubbing Mr O'Brien, who Mr Trump anointed his "special envoy" to the meeting just outside Bangkok.

The absence of the seven Asean leaders is perceived as diplomatic tit-for-tat.

"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."

Pongphisoot Busabarat, a lecturer on political science at Chulalongkorn University said sending an "Asean Troika" -- or three-leader-led delegation -- to meet the US envoy was a way to show dissatisfaction with the US for sending a lessor delegation to the summit, an act tantamount to a "slap in the face" for Asean.

"Asean countries have tolerated the US for treating them like this for a long time. Sending an adviser to the summit is quite unacceptable given the diplomatic culture of East Asia that emphasises face-saving and making more than token gestures," he said.

"President Trump's move was disappointing. Given Washington's longstanding interaction with the region, the US should have known better."

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