US President Donald Trump has invited ASEAN leaders to a “special summit” in the United States next year, after skipping the ongoing meet in Bangkok.
Robert O’Brien, the White House national security adviser, read a message from Trump at a US-ASEAN meeting on Monday (Nov 4) on the sidelines of the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
“I would also like to take this opportunity to offer an invitation to the leaders of ASEAN to join me in the United States for a special summit, meeting at a time of mutual convenience in the first quarter of 2020,” O’Brien said, reading Trump’s letter.
Trump’s letter also said that a summit in the US would provide “an excellent opportunity” for leaders to “broaden and deepen our cooperation on matters of great importance”.
Trump has skipped the ASEAN-US summit for the past two years, sending Vice-President Mike Pence in 2018.
O’Brien stood in contrast to earlier ASEAN meetings, which had all been attended by most heads of state.
At this year’s summit, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was the highest-ranking delegation official, prompting the 10-member grouping to downgrade the summit to a “troika” attended only by top leaders from Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
“It’s not appropriate for ASEAN to send leaders when the US representation is not on parity,” one diplomat in Bangkok told AFP.
Another diplomat said: “It’s not a boycott, it’s just that other leaders have other meetings to attend to.”
Ross insisted Monday that the US remained “extremely engaged” with Asia despite Trump skipping the summit.
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.”
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 instead 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.
The 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which could be finalised next year, includes 30 per cent 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 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.