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International relations

Trump skips ASEAN Summit again, ceding influence to China

Beijing will push agenda in region on South China Sea and free trade pact

President Donald Trump departs early from the ASEAN regional summit held in Manila in 2017.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- For the third straight year, U.S. President Donald Trump will miss a key regional gathering in Asia, sending U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in his stead.

The week of Asian diplomacy, starting with the annual summit of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which kicked off on Thursday, and the East Asia Summit, which opens Monday, will once again offer China a front seat for discussions that will drive Southeast Asia's policy agenda.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will attend the ASEAN Summit to represent Beijing's interests. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other world leaders also will be present. The ASEAN leaders' summit will be held Saturday.

Trump is no fan of multilateral talks or international conferences, preferring one-on-one negotiations instead. He attended the ASEAN portion in Manila in 2017 but opted to skip the East Asia Summit, which gathers the 10 ASEAN nations plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Russia. 

Trump did plan to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in mid-November, where he was to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But host country Chile called off the APEC conference on Wednesday.

At the Bangkok meetings, Beijing is negotiating a code of conduct with ASEAN covering the scope of activities allowed in the South China Sea, an area fraught with territorial disputes. China has inserted language that would bar intervention by parties outside the region in an attempt to block the U.S. from meddling.

Chinese research vessels have been active in Vietnam's coastal exclusive economic zone for more than three months through October, resulting in a standoff with Vietnamese warships. Hanoi says the activity violates national sovereignty as well as the country's jurisdiction over those waters.

When U.S. Vice President Mike Pence attended the ASEAN Summit last year, he vigorously condemned China's island-building right in front of Li, China's No. 2. But the presence of O'Brien and Ross this year represents a step down in U.S. clout for driving discussions.

"It shows that the U.S. does not see ASEAN as important," said Piti Srisangnam of Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, who warns that American influence may decline in the region.

A draft of the chairman's statement for the leaders' summit expresses concerns alluding to Beijing's militarization of the South China Sea. But the wording could change at the insistence of China or Cambodia.

Negotiators also will attempt to finalize the long-stalled Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal, forming a bloc that would consist of the 10 Southeast Asian countries plus six other Asia-Pacific nations including China, Japan and India. Ministerial meetings open Friday, while the RCEP leaders' summit will be held Monday.

The parties have reached agreements on 18 out of roughly 20 areas concerning the RCEP. Gaps remain on tariff relief and rules governing e-commerce. India, in particular, has cold feet over lowering duties while shouldering a trade deficit with China.

If it goes into effect, the RCEP would create a free trade zone covering nearly half the world's population and about 30% of global trade. But talks have dragged on since 2013, putting pressure on participants to reach a compromise this year.

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