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July 25, 2007

Rice no-show understandable
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations denied on July 25 the US decision not to send its top diplomat to a regional meeting in Manila was a deliberate snub.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will instead by replaced by her deputy, John Negroponte. It is the second time she has scrapped a meeting with regional diplomats, AFP reported.

But ASEAN believes relations with Washington remain strong, and that Rice's decision will not affect that, said Philippine Marciano Paynor, the head of the meeting's organising committee.

"It's not in the interest of the United States to disregard Asean," Paynor told a press briefing, adding that Washington had "expressed keen interest in the development of Asean".

"I don't think there is any such negative message," he said, when asked if the host government, the Philippines, felt that it was a deliberate snub.

He said it was a "prerogative" of the US whom to send as a representative, stressing that Rice's absence could not be helped because Washington had to settle its own internal issues.

The group's secretary general, Ong Keng Yong, said on Monday it would be a "dampener" if Rice skipped the Asean meeting.

The State Department said Negroponte, a former US ambassador to Manila, would lead the US delegation to the Asean meetings.

The meetings include an August 1-2 dialogue between the region and its key trading partners – Asean is the largest US export market after Europe and Japan – as well as a high-level regional security forum.

The 27-member Asean Regional Forum (ARF) is the only high level official security group in the Asia-Pacific region, and includes Russia, India, China, the European Union and North Korea.

Paynor said Negroponte would be a "most effective" US representative to the meetings because he has an intimate knowledge of how Southeast Asian governments work.

Last week, the White House also announced that President George W. Bush had postponed talks with leaders of the 10 Asean states – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The landmark summit, scheduled for September, when Bush receives a much-awaited assessment of the situation in insurgency-wracked Iraq, was aimed at highlighting 30 years of official ties between Washington and Southeast Asia.

In 2005, Rice also cancelled a trip to the Asean meetings, the first American secretary of state to skip ARF talks since they were first held in 1994.

Asean diplomats then felt slighted, saying that the US absence may have signalled that the bloc's stature had diminished in Washington's eyes. AFP


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