Southeast Asian leaders including President Rodrigo Duterte skipped the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-United States Summit on Monday after American President Donald Trump was a no-show.
Trump was represented by national security adviser Robert O’Brien while President Duterte was represented by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.
READ: Duterte urges ASEAN leaders: Don’t take sides
Among the state leaders, only Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha were present during the ASEAN-US Summit.
The other seven leaders skipped the meeting.
Trump’s absence for the second straight year in ASEAN will not affect the countries’ view of US as an ally, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III told reporters in a press conference.
“I don’t think it affects the view of the ASEAN about the reliability of the US. For reliability, we had better look into their actions rather than in to their presence,” Dominguez said.
Duterte also missed the “family photo” session at the 22nd ASEAN Plus Three Summit, a meeting with the regional states along with China, Japan, and Republic of Korea.
The program was scheduled at 8:30 a.m. but the President arrived at 8:53 a.m.
Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo said the Chief Executive was late for the photo session because he passed by the restroom.
During the meeting, Duterte commended China, Japan, and South Korea for their support to ASEAN-member states.
US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross insisted Monday that his country remained “extremely engaged” with Asia despite Trump’s decision to skip the summit with ASEAN.
Ross and O’Brien are the most senior members of the Washington delegation in Bangkok for the ASEAN meeting, also attended by Indian, South Korean and Japanese leaders.
Previous meetings have been attended by the president or vice president.
Trump is accused of retreating from the region after pulling out of a major Asia-Pacific trade pact almost immediately after taking office.
But Ross pushed back against criticism that America has turned its back on Asian allies.
“The Trump administration is extremely engaged in and fully committed to this region,” he said at a business forum on the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting Monday.
“We continue to negotiate trade deals with countries in this region.”
READ: ASEAN hopeful on trade deal
At the US-ASEAN meeting later in the day, O’Brien addressed several Southeast Asian foreign ministers after most ASEAN leaders failed to turn up.
Trump has railed against countries in Asia for building massive trade surpluses with the US and has vowed to pursue bilateral deals in the region in favor of sprawling pacts.
He signed a free trade agreement with Japan earlier this year and also renegotiated the terms of a trade deal with South Korea.
Soon after he took office Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—which would have been the world’s biggest free-trade pact—calling the deal a “job killer.”
It has since been reborn as a watered-down deal without the US, and another China-backed trade pact is now set to be the world’s largest when it is signed.
READ: ASEAN pushes sea code
The 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which could be finalized next year, includes 30 percent of global GDP and half of the world’s people.
It includes all 10 ASEAN states plus China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand—notably excluding the US.
Washington remains locked in its bruising trade war with China, with both slides slapping tit-for-tat tariffs on billions of dollars worth of goods.
Ross said an agreement to row back some of those tariffs was “very far along.”
Trump has said the deal could be soon signed with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, possibly in the US state of Iowa.
Trump attended the ASEAN summit in the Philippines in 2017 while Vice President Mike Pence appeared last year.
A senior White House official denied that Washington had snubbed this year’s event, saying Trump and Pence are unavailable because they are “very engaged in campaigning” for a string of governors’ races. With AFPREAD: Duterte ASEAN-bound; Ex-DFA chief pushes sea code
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