By Genalyn Kabiling
NONTHABURI, Thailand – A majority of Southeast Asian leaders, including President Duterte, decided to skip a summit with the United States Monday with the absence of US President Donald Trump.
Of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), seven leaders sent their foreign ministers instead to the summit with the US.
National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien represented Trump at the regional summit attended by the leaders of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and the foreign ministers of the other ASEAN member-states.
The Philippine leader was represented by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.
“The leaders will attend the meetings when their counterparts are here so they attend when their counterparts from plus three nations are here,” Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III told reporters on the sidelines of the regional summit here.
“But when it’s not a leader I think and it comes off as a ministerial level, I think the ministers will take care of that. It’s just a matter of proper balance,” he said about the absence of the ASEAN leaders.
Dominguez said Locsin told him about the appearance of ministers instead at the ASEAN-US summit. “It’s going to be minister-to-minister,” he added.
At the ASEAN-US summit, O’Brien extended Trump’s invitation to the Southeast Asian leaders to visit the US for special summit next year. It was unclear if the leaders have accepted the invitation.
Trump missed the 35th ASEAN summit and related meetings and sent O’Brien and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in his stead. This will be second consecutive year the US leader will miss the regional gathering in Asia. The White House did not say why Trump opted to skip the regional meetings in Thailand.
Meantime, Dominguez said Trump’s absence does not necessarily demonstrate that the US has become less reliable partner of the regional bloc. He admitted though it would be “nice” if the US leader attends future regional summits.
“The absence of President Trump basically, he is missed. I don’t think it affects the the view of the ASEAN about the reliability fo the US. for reliability, we had better look into their actions rather into their presence,” he said.
He recognized that Trump was dealing with domestic concerns, alluding to the impeachment proceedings launched against him at the US House of Representatives.
Asked if Trump should put more importance to ASEAN, Dominguez said: “That would be nice but I suppose he has other issues that he has to address and most of them are domestic at the moment. i think he has a slight problem with the legislature there so let’s allow him to make his choice.”
Earlier, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo agreed that Trump skipping the ASEAN summit did not mean that he was less concerned about the region.
“We all know for a fact that Mr. Trump is trying to survive there. There’s an impeachment going on process so maybe that’s the reason why he did not come but it doesn’t mean he is not concerned with what is happening in this region,” Panelo told reporters here.