Seven out of 10 Southeast Asian (ASEAN) leaders snub an important meeting with the United States - Photo by ASEAN Secretary Office

JAKARTA (TheInsiderStories) – Seven out of 10 Southeast Asian (ASEAN) leaders snub an important meeting with the United States on Monday (11/04) after President Donald Trump decided not to attend their regional summit in Thailand.

Rather than Trump, the United States (US) sent recently appointed national security adviser Robert O’Brien and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to this year’s high-level meeting in Bangkok, delivering a perceived snub to the leaders of Asian nations.

The move contrasts with other allies of the 10-member regional bloc who sent their heads of government. While other world powers, including India, China, Japan, and Russia, were represented by their prime ministers.

Only host Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha of Thailand, the Vietnamese prime minister as host of next year’s summit and the leader of Laos, who oversees ASEAN-US relations joined O’Brien in the meeting, AP reported.

The remaining countries of the bloc – Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia, Myanmar, and the Philippines downgraded their representation by sending only their foreign ministers.

The snub, however, didn’t stop O’Brien from trying to insert the US narrative into ASEAN conversations, saying Beijing was using intimidation to try to stop ASEAN nations from exploiting their offshore resources, blocking access to US$2.5 trillion in oil and gas reserves alone.

“These tactics go against the rules of respect, fairness, and international law. The region has no interest in a new imperial era where a big country can rule others on the theory that might make right,” he said as quoted from AP.

Moving from fear-mongering to promises, the national security advisor tried to assure the audience of the “rock-solid American commitment in word and deed to our friends, allies, and partners” in Indo-Pacific.

China has long warned Washington not to interfere in territorial disputes it regards as a purely Asian issue. It opposes naval and aerial patrols by the US and its allies in the disputed waters, but American forces have maintained their presence and continued “freedom of navigation” sail-bys designed to challenge China’s vast territorial claims. Beijing is confident that a regional code that China is negotiating with ASEAN states could be concluded in three years.

He also quoted from Trump’s letter which invited ASEAN leaders to the US for a “special summit” next year. It remains to be seen how they will handle the invitation, given the kind of attention the US President is giving to engaging with the Asian partners.

2019 is the second year in a row that Trump has skipped the ASEAN-US summit. Vice-President Mike Pence attended last year’s meeting in Singapore, which makes O’Brien the lowest-level official to lead the US delegation during Trump’s presidency.

In addition to O’Brien, Ross also emphasizes the US economic relationship with the ASEAN proves Washington remains firmly committed to the region. He said two-way trade between the two sides grew by 6 percent to a record $2 trillion last year – more than the overall value of all but eight countries’ economies.

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

Ross added that the $2 trillion figure “far surpassed” US bilateral trade with Europe ($1.5 trillion) and its trade with Central and South America ($1.2 trillion).

“So you can see how important the relationship with this region is compared with our relationship with other major regions in the world,” Ross said.

The cumulative stock of bilateral foreign direct investment between the two sides meanwhile increased by 5.9 percent to $1.6 trillion, he said. Total US investment in the region was $866 billion last year.

“That is far more than China’s foreign direct investment in the region,” Ross said, pointing out the bulk of Beijing’s outbound capital to the region went to Hong Kong in 2017.

Ross also hailed the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, presented in 2017 as a doctrine to guide Washington in its engagement with Asia.

Ross said the Trump administration would “continue the values that have served the Indo-Pacific so well”, referring to “respect for the sovereignty of all nations, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and open commercial environment with transparent agreements that encourage investment and connectivity, and an adherence to international law including freedom of navigation and overflight”.

Written by Lexy Nantu, Email: lexy@theinsiderstories.com