Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bush Backs Out of Asean Summit

US ties with Southeast Asia are facing a setback as President George W. Bush cancelled his scheduled first summit with ASEAN leaders and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip to the region for annual talks seems uncertain.

US officials have informed Singapore, host of the much-touted US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, that the September 5 date for the talks was now "not convenient," ASEAN diplomats said.

September is critical for Bush as a much-awaited assessment of the situation in insurgency-wracked Iraq would be released that month amid a revolt within his own Republican party over failed war strategy.

"We are actually disappointed," one ASEAN diplomat told AFP.

The landmark summit was aimed at highlighting 30 years of official ties between Washington and ASEAN, which comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

On the heels of the failed summit is growing uncertainty about Rice attending an annual ASEAN ministerial meeting, which includes an August 1-2 dialogue between the region and its key trading partners as well as a high-level regional security forum.

The 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is the only high level official security group in the Asia-Pacific region, and includes Russia, India, China and the European Union.

Foreign diplomats say they have heard that Rice may skip the trip to the ASEAN meeting due to a conflict of schedules.

"We will keep you up to date on her travel schedules," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Wednesday when asked whether Rice would attend the meeting or send her deputy, John Negroponte.

In 2005, Rice became the first American secretary of state to send her deputy to the ARF since it was first held in 1994, drawing criticism from the region which felt its stature had diminished in Washington's eyes.

Walter Lohman, former senior vice president of the US-ASEAN Business Council, said that based on information he had received, "it looks all but certain that Secretary Rice would take a pass on the ASEAN meetings."

With Bush's cancellation of his summit with ASEAN leaders and Rice's possible non-attendance, Lohman said the immediate future seemed grim for ties between the two sides.

"It is a significant setback in US-ASEAN relations after two good years and the question is, if the administration doesn't quickly get back on track, will there really be enough time in the next 18 months to patch it up," said Lohman, director of the Asian studies center at Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

With 18 months left in the White House for Bush, his administration's Asian diplomacy had been largely focused on trying to end North Korea's nuclear weapons drive in the hope of achieving its true foreign policy victory.

After refusing to engage directly with North Korea, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian affairs Christopher Hill decided to make a sudden visit to Pyongyang last month.

In his rush to make the trip, he reneged on an annual meeting with his ASEAN counterparts in Washington.

"Canceling a meeting here or there may not seem like a big deal, but the slights are piling up," Lohman said.

"To anyone watching from Asia, they point past the current position of the United States to a future without it," he said.

ASEAN is the largest US export market after Europe and Japan. The region of more than 500 million people is establishing with China a free trade zone -- which would be the world's biggest.

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