WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s decision to miss a key Southeast Asian security meeting to focus on the Middle East does not diminish U.S. involvement in the region, her spokesman said on Tuesday.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Deputy Secretary John Negroponte will stand in for Rice at the August 2 ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila, which brings together the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations and key partners.
“I don’t think anybody really seriously questions our engagement in Southeast Asia,” said McCormack in response to reporters’ questions about Rice missing the ASEAN gathering for the second time in three years.
“We have deep involvement with not only ASEAN but with the individual countries in Southeast Asia,” he said. Rice plans to visit the region before she leaves office and officials there understand her need to deal with troubles in the Middle East, McCormack added.
Political analysts said, however, that Rice’s decision and President George W. Bush’s postponement of a trip to Singapore for a September ASEAN summit were not helpful to U.S. interests.
“If you combine those two things together, it sends a really bad message,” said Ralph Cossa, president of he Pacific Forum/CSIS, a Hawaii think tank that monitors U.S.-Asia ties.
“Is it fatal? No,” he said. “Certainly, people understand, but at a time when people are looking for reassurance, this is not very reassuring.”
Southeast Asia expert Joshua Kurlantzick of the Carnegie Endowment for International peace in Washington said the biggest problem with the cancellations was that “hopes had been raised and now they are going to be disappointed again.”
“It reduces the ability for the United States to have any kind of say on issues that matter to us in ASEAN,” he said.
On another front, the top U.S. military officer for the Asia-Pacific region on Tuesday described an improving security situation there and deepening American security ties with a range of Asian states.
“Things are pacific in the Pacific,” said Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, who has visited China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and other states in the region since taking his post in March.
“Peace and stability is the watchword,” he said in a lecture at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Keating said the U.S. forces under his command — which stretches from the U.S. Pacific Coast to India and from the North Pole to the South Pole — are capable of responding to crises in the region despite the strain of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Describing terrorism as the biggest concern in the Pacific region, he said the U.S. military was also concerned about North Korea’s missiles and China’s growing military might, including its growing submarine fleet and expanding navy.
“Some folks would figure that we at Pacific Command spend a fair amount of our time kind of worrying about the PLA — People’s Liberation Army — but we don’t worry,” Keating said.
“We’re concerned,” he said. “Does it mean we’re worried? No,” he said.
Additional reporting by Sue Pleming