Trump will attend Asean events but likely skip East Asia Summit

Mr Trump
Mr Trump

The Philippines has confirmed that United States President Donald Trump will attend the summit with Asean leaders here next month as well as celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the regional grouping, but he will likely miss a key meeting between Asean and eight of its partners.

"The decision was really that he will be here on the 12th and the 13th (of November). If the EAS (East Asia Summit) will push through on the 14th, he cannot extend another day because he has a long trip," Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano told reporters yesterday.

Philippine Ambassador Marciano Paynor, head of the Asean summit organising group, told a news forum that while nothing yet was set in stone, the EAS was due to take place on Nov 14.

He said the US requested that the summit be held earlier so that Mr Trump could attend, but that meant consulting with 16 other leaders.

The latest advice from Washington was that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would attend in place of Mr Trump if the EAS takes place on Nov 14, said Mr Paynor.

The Washington Post had on Tuesday quoted a National Security Council spokesman as saying that Mr Trump would be in the Philippines on Nov 12 and 13, but "will not travel the additional 52 miles (84km) to the Filipino city of Angeles on Nov 14 for the East Asia Summit".

"The President's trip to Asia is extremely lengthy and will be his longest to date - his return to the US on the evening of Nov 13 is entirely schedule-driven," the spokes-man said.

Pundits said that Mr Trump's absence could signal a lack of interest in the East Asia Summit and what it represents. It could also raise doubts about America's credibility and influence in the Asia-Pacific region at a time when China has been drawing more of its neighbours under its wings in a challenge to US presence in the region.

The Philippines said yesterday the East Asia Summit would be held in Manila, not Angeles. The meeting - the region's premier strategic forum - gathers the 10 nations of Asean, plus Russia, China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India and South Korea, along with the US.

Former president Barack Obama, who brought the US into the Asean-organised summits attended the event every year since 2011, apart from once in 2013 because of a US government shutdown.

Pundits said that Mr Trump's absence could signal a lack of interest in the forum and what it represents.

It could also raise doubts about America's credibility and influence in the Asia-Pacific region at a time when China has been drawing more of its neighbours under its wings in a challenge to US presence in the region.

"Coming shortly after the 19th party congress in China, in which Xi Jinping has further consolidated his power and laid out a vision for China's rise to superpower status, it raises questions about America's long-term commitment to South-east Asia, given that the EAS is the premier forum," said Dr Mira Rapp-Hooper, adjunct senior fellow with the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington.

Mr Paynor said that Mr Trump, while in Manila, would "in principle" meet his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte.

"It is only a question of time and timing," he said.

Mr Duterte has kept warm relations with Mr Trump, calling him a "kindred spirit", a far cry from his scathing response to Mr Obama, Mr Trump's predecessor, who had criticised the Philippine leader's brutal war on drugs which has left at least 3,000 people dead.

•Additional reporting by Nirmal Ghosh in Washington

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2017, with the headline 'Trump will attend Asean events but likely skip East Asia Summit'. Print Edition | Subscribe