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Feelings Mixed on Bush Decision to Skip ASEAN Meeting

Feelings are mixed in Southeast Asia following President Bush's decision to skip a September meeting of leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore. Whereas some policymakers and analysts say it is a sign of U.S. inattentiveness to the region, others say relations between the two sides will be unaffected. Roger Wilkison reports from Bangkok.

Mr. Bush will be attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Sydney in September. The White House says, however, he will not stop in Singapore to huddle with his counterparts from the 10-nation grouping known as ASEAN.

U.S. diplomats note most of those leaders will be at the APEC summit anyway, and they say a Bush meeting with ASEAN chiefs will be rescheduled.

September is a critical month for Mr. Bush because a much-awaited assessment of the war in Iraq is supposed to be released then.

Some ASEAN experts, such as former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan, say that the president's decision to skip the meeting creates the perception that Washington is inattentive to the region.

"I think most people in the ASEAN region, on the whole, are quite sympathetic to what the president is going through in Washington, but, nevertheless, I think a lot of us feel disappointed," said Surin.

As if to rub salt into the wound, as the Bangkok newspaper The Nation put it in an editorial, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will not attend the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila in early August. Her counterparts from China, India, Japan and Russia are scheduled to be there, but Rice will skip the event because of a trip to the Middle East.

A State Department spokesman said Rice regretted having to miss the ASEAN gathering, and that the cancellation did not indicate diminished regard for the region.

To those who say that Washington is no longer involved with Southeast Asia, former ASEAN Secretary General Rodolfo Severino replies that Mr. Bush has consistently engaged ASEAN leaders at the annual APEC summits. So, he says, skipping the Singapore meeting will have no effect on U.S.-ASEAN relations.

"First, we have to understand that there are many demands on the time of leaders like Bush and the president of the United States, and the Secretary of State. So, sometimes these things can't be avoided," he said. "Countries' relationships with one another don't hinge on the holding or non-holding of individual meetings but on the general trend and substance of the relationship."

U.S.-ASEAN economic relations are generally considered solid. The United States is the regional grouping's main trading partner and a major source of foreign investment.

But Mely Caballero Anthony, an ASEAN expert at the Rajanathan School of International Studies in Singapore, says that, barring a threat to U.S. security interests, Southeast Asia will not consistently get Washington's attention.

"It's quite clear that, between the Middle East and Southeast Asia, Southeast Asia takes second place," Anthony said. "But to the extent that this will affect the relations, I don't think so."

Washington's allies in the region fear that it has been distracted by Iraq, Iran and North Korea, allowing China to quietly raise its profile and be more assertive.

Chinese leaders and diplomats have fanned out across Southeast Asia handing out loans, helping build roads and ports and distributing aid and investment. Beijing and ASEAN plan to set up a free trade area by 2010 whereas the U.S. says it is too early to discuss a similar arrangement.

But Anthony says that, even with a more active U.S. presence in the region, China would continue to steadily increase its influence.

"You could look at it as China moving in, even with the United States engaged in the region," said Anthony. "This is something that has been part of China's grand strategy, and it appears it will continue to do so with or without the United States."

Former Thai foreign minister Surin, who is to be the next ASEAN secretary-general, says he expects the United States to pay more attention to Asia once things - in his words - calm down elsewhere.

"Too much focus, too much energy, too much power have been concentrated on only one or two particular areas, particular issues," he said. "But, in the natural course of things, I think, in a few years, not too long, Asia will emerge as your issue center-stage once again."

Surin says one positive signal Washington could send is to appoint an ambassador to the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta in recognition of the importance of the region and its 500 million people.