WASHINGTON • The United States has downgraded its participation in next week's Asia-Pacific summits in Bangkok, a move bound to disappoint Asian partners worried by China's expanding influence.
While US President Donald Trump was expected to attend the Apec forum in Chile in mid-November, the most senior official from his administration who will be in Bangkok next week when Thailand hosts the annual East Asian Summit (EAS) and US-Asean Summit will be Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the White House said.
Mr Ross is scheduled to lead the US delegation to an Indo-Pacific Business Forum grouping government officials and business executives on the sidelines of the EAS.
Mr Trump, a Republican, has named White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien as his special envoy to the summits.
Mr David Stilwell, the State Department's assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, will also be in Bangkok, but the US delegation will be significantly outranked by other regional players, including, Japan, India and China.
Despite declaring Indo-Pacific "the single most consequential region for America's future" in a Pentagon strategy report this year, the Trump administration has steadily scaled back US presence at the EAS and Asean gatherings.
While Mr Trump attended the US-Asean summit in Manila in 2017, he has never attended a full EAS meeting. Vice-President Mike Pence represented the US at the meetings in Singapore last year.
Diplomats and analysts say Mr Trump's absence in Bangkok will raise questions about US commitment to the region, especially after his withdrawal from the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement in 2017.
Mr Trump's predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama, by contrast attended every US-Asean and East Asia summit from 2011, apart from 2013, when he cancelled due to a government shutdown at home.
Asian diplomats say the lack of top-level US representation in Bangkok will be a significant if not unexpected disappointment in a region increasingly concerned about China's fast-expanding influence.