President Donald Trump skipped a virtual summit with his Southeast Asian counterparts on Saturday, the third year in a row the US is being represented at a lower level.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien said Mr Trump regretted he was unable to attend the online summit with the 10-members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) but stressed the importance of ties with the region.
“At this time of global crisis, the US-ASEAN strategic partnership has become even more important as we work together to combat the coronavirus,” Mr O’Brien said in remarks at the opening ceremony, which was live-streamed to ASEAN members watching from their respective countries.
Mr Trump attended the ASEAN summit in 2017, but sent only representatives during the last two meetings. A special summit with ASEAN that he was supposed to host in Las Vegas in March was called off due to the pandemic.
Mr Trump is busy with challenging the results of the Nov. 3 presidential race won by Democrat Joe Biden, insisting he was the victim of election fraud. Most countries have acknowledged Mr Biden’s victory.
The White House said in a statement Mr O’Brien would also represent the US at an East Asia virtual summit later on Saturday with ASEAN as well as China, Japan and South Korea. Despite Mr Trump’s absence, it said ASEAN remained central to his vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, Washington’s strategy to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
China’s sway in the region is set to expand with a massive free trade agreement that will be signed on Sunday. The pact, which will cover almost a third of the world economy, includes the ASEAN nations, plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
India backed out of the plan last year and it does not include the United States, despite America’s 2 trillion dollars (£1.5 billion) in trade with the region.
In his remarks Saturday, Mr O’Brien touted ASEAN as the fourth-largest trading partner for the US, with trade reaching more than 354 billion dollars (£268 billion) last year.
“We deeply appreciate ASEAN partners’ efforts to keep the key supply chains open, factories operating, and PPE flowing,” he said, referring to personal protective equipment used to protect against the coronavirus.