Washington—US President Donald Trump has invited Southeast Asian leaders to meet next month in Las Vegas, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday, after a summit last year was scrapped.
Pompeo confirmed the date when asked at a news conference whether fears over the coronavirus outbreak would delay the summit with members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“The ASEAN summit is still, we’re working our way through it for ... the second weekend in March in Las Vegas,” Pompeo said.
Diplomats said that the summit would involve Trump and is scheduled to take place on March 12 in the desert gambling haven.
The United States began sounding out Southeast Asian leaders about visiting after Chile canceled a Pacific Rim summit scheduled for November in the wake of major demonstrations.
Trump had likewise skipped an ASEAN summit and parallel East Asia Summit last year in Bangkok.
He instead sent his national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, in the lowest-level participation ever by the United States in the East Asia Summit.
Most ASEAN leaders snubbed a meeting with O’Brien, sending junior officials who were of more parallel rank.
The low-level presence in Bangkok came after years of US efforts to show that the United States is committed to Asia in the face of a rising China.
In Bangkok, O’Brien renewed the US call for freedom of navigation and accused China of using “intimidation” to stop ASEAN nations from exploiting resources in the South China Sea.
Last week, China’s foreign minister met his Southeast Asian peers in Laos for crisis talks over the coronavirus which has seeded panic and constricted economies dependent on the flow of goods and tourists.
Wang Yi held talks with counterparts from the 10ASEAN countries in Vientiane in a hastily-convened meeting over the health scare.
China’s foreign ministry has described the summit as part of a “tradition of supporting each other through thick and thin.” A similar meeting was held in 2003 following the outbreak of SARS.
Originating in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the new coronavirus -- known as COVID-19 -- has killed more than 2,000 people, the majority within China.
The government has locked down tens of millions of people in several virus-hit cities, extended Lunar New Year holidays and pulled flights in a scramble to contain the virus.
Still the health scare has cascaded across Southeast Asia, with cases recorded in the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam have restricted flights from the mainland and suspended visa-free arrivals as health screening ramps up at entry points.
Thailand, which has imposed no such restrictions, reported a 90 percent slump in arrivals from the mainland this month, a gut punch to an already beleaguered tourist sector which makes up nearly a fifth of the economy.
Thailand anticipates a loss of over $8 billion by year’s end from the tourist tail-off.
In Laos, Beijing will be eager to “project regional solidarity with its anti-pandemic efforts” a Southeast Asian diplomat told AFP, declining to be named.
China sees ASEAN as its backyard and has ramped up economic, diplomatic and cultural influence over recent years with billions of dollars of investment, tourist outflows and a bigger presence at regional summits.
There are fears prolonged disruption by the virus could slow work on the massive China-backed ‘Belt and Road’ schemes which criss-cross ASEAN.