Absent Rice presents opportunity for China

Beijing likely to gain most from top US official’s decision to skip Asean meeting.

CHINA is winning by default.

As the Bush administration becomes increasingly caught up with Iraq and the Middle East, observers see Beijing as the biggest beneficiary of a decision by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice not to attend the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in Manila next week.

“We have been here before,” explained Asia expert Walter Lohman of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

“Last time, the administration pulled it together very nicely and put US-Asean back on course after her no-show. But how many times can you right the ship?

This time, there may not be enough time left in the President’s term to credibly make amends.

“And China knows how to play the game. They get far, far more PR bang for their buck than we do. And that PR leverages their diplomacy.”

Next week’s no show by Dr Rice will be the second time she has skipped an Asean meeting. The first was in 2005.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, however, has insisted the focus on the Middle East did not diminish American involvement in the region.

“I do not think anybody really seriously questions our engagement in South-east Asia,” Mr McCormack said in response to reporters’ questions about Dr Rice’s no-show. “We have deep involvement with not only Asean, but with the individual countries in South-east Asia.”

He made clear that Dr Rice, who will visit Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian territories next week, had plans to visit Asia before she leaves office.

Two stops in Africa – in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ghana – that were to have been appended to the original Middle East trip, were also cancelled last week.

Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the US Pacific Command who has visited China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and other countries in the region since taking up his post in March this year, noted an improving security situation and deepening US security ties with a range of Asian states.

“Things are pacific in the Pacific,” he said on Tuesday.

But the perception of declining US engagement in the region has been doggedly persistent in recent years despite the presence of the US Pacific fleet, 80,000 troops, major military exercises, five treaty allies and billions of dollars in trade and investment.

Dr Rice’s absence at the ARF is just the latest in a series that has bolstered the perceptions that Asean is now on the backburner in Washington.

Mr Christopher Hill, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, ruffled feathers when he reneged on a meeting with his Asean counterparts in Washington to mark the 30th anniversary of US-Asean relations.

Then Mr Bush rescheduled a planned summit with the regional grouping in Singapore.

This has left the door wide open for Chinese diplomacy that has been adroit at occupying space the US has left vacant.

A senior Thai official attending the ARF told The Straits Times: “America has long been an old friend to Asean, but there are doubts today it is behaving like one. The US must understand that there is a cost to this. And the cost is that Asean countries will gravitate towards China.”

However, Mr Marciano Paynor, Philippine Secretary General of the Asean National Organising Committee, said the non-attendance of a foreign minister will not diminish the value of the meetings.

The Chinese, in the meantime, are rubbing their hands in glee.

A Washington-based Chinese diplomat told The Straits Times: “The countries in the region need to understand that the US is a world power and in the grand scheme of things, Asean is not very important to them. China sees itself as an Asian power.

“We value our ties with Asean more than the US does. Asean needs to understand that.”

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