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NEWS UPDATES 26 August 2010

Asean leader downplays US absence

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The head of ASEAN downplayed the absence of US officials from annual trade talks, arguing their no-show does not detract from the US re-engagement with Southeast Asia.

"We are disappointed that they are not showing up," said Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

But he described Washington's commitment to the region as "quite strong".

Surin told reporters there are "many levels of engagement", and economic ministers from the 10-member bloc had already visited the United States in March.

He said issues remaining from those talks will be followed up this week with the US-ASEAN Business Council, a private-sector group which he said works closely with Washington, and which is attending the Vietnam meetings.

Since taking office last year, the administration of President Barack Obama has sought to pay more attention to the region, which felt neglected by former president George W. Bush's government as it focused on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At a July meeting in Vietnam with ASEAN foreign ministers, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said her country is "committed to being an active partner" with the bloc.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other senior officials have also visited the region.

"Clearly, it's a political-security engagement that is leading" rather than other aspects of the relationship such as trade, said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

"I think, overall, the engagement between the US and ASEAN has become more serious than before," Tay said by telephone.

"We are looking at the possibility of trade settlement in yuan or (ASEAN countries') own currencies" within the framework of a free trade deal that took effect this year, he said.

Japan pledged new aid to help narrow the development gap between the bloc's richest and poorest nations, but could not say how much money will be involved.

Economic ministers from Japan and the Mekong nations -- Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam -- agreed on a plan for infrastructure development and other initiatives in the area, said Kunihiko Shinoda, a senior official with Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

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