Las Vegas summit in March will reaffirm US stake in Asean, say diplomats

US President Donald Trump acknowledges his supporters during a rally for his reelection at the Convention Center in Las Vegas on Feb 21, 2020.
US President Donald Trump acknowledges his supporters during a rally for his reelection at the Convention Center in Las Vegas on Feb 21, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON - Eight Asean leaders will gather in Las Vegas on March 14 for a US-Asean summit characterised by some analysts as an olive branch from the United States after President Donald Trump skipped the meetings two years in a row.

"The United States wants to reaffirm its commitment to the region, because they got some flak for that," one diplomat said.

While he has made trips to Singapore and Vietnam to meet North Korea's Chairman Kim Jong Un, President Trump has not met Asean leaders since the 2017 summit in Manila.

For the Thailand meetings, President Trump was represented by National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, a move which also raised eyebrows as he was not even a Cabinet member.

But Mr O'Brien handed each Asean leader an invitation from the President to a US-Asean summit in the first quarter of 2020.

Diplomatic sources said as of Friday (Feb 21), the only leaders absent would be Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed. But both are expected to send representatives, in the case of the Philippines Foreign Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin Jr, the sources said.

It is yet unknown whether Myanmar would be represented by President Win Myint or State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

Subsequently, Indonesian President Joko Widodo will travel to Washington to visit the White House.

The US has come up with a theme for the Las Vegas summit - "Human Capital Development".

Among other things the one-day summit will see a tech event, and discussions on energy and trade. Asean and the US will also mark five years since the US elevated its relationship with the 10-member group to a "strategic partnership".

"For the US, the day to day focus has been dealing with China. Now they are at least trying to stay in the game of regional relationships," one diplomat said.

"The idea for Asean is to stay engaged with the US at a time when the region looks at the US as a big partner in the Indo-Pacific," he said.

"And the US also does remain engaged; South-east Asia is a central part of the Indo-Pacific; they can't do without Asean."

"It is equally important for Asean countries to show they value the US presence in the region, plus each Asean country has its own reasons to come and meet with President Trump," he added.