US-ASEAN Summit Cancelled as Coronavirus Disruption Continues

Analysts unconvinced, but Hun Sen agrees that postponing is the right thing to do, given the severity of the COVID-19 epidemic.

PHNOM PENH--Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday said that the United States has decided to delay the US-ASEAN summit due to the ongoing battle to contain the COVID-19 disease, rather than a lack of US interest in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states.

The decision to postpone the 2020 US-ASEAN summit has been met with some degree of skepticism, given the relatively low-level delegation US President Trump sent in his place to the US-ASEAN summit in Bangkok last November. Despite this now being the third time that Trump has been absent from the summit, Hun Sen claims that only the US will know the real reason behind this.

He went on to say that some analysts claim that the US’s decision to postpone the summit is due to concerns over the attendance of leaders from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, who he suggested may have missed the summit due to political and social concerns in their respective countries. 

The US had planned to host a special summit for ASEAN leaders on Mar. 14, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada, but the Trump administration announced a last-minute cancellation of the summit, citing the coronavirus outbreak.

Hun Sen agreed that postponing is the right thing to do, suggesting that now is a time to fight against coronavirus, but reiterated that this cancellation does not reflect a decline in relations between the US and ASEAN members.  

The summit would have taken place in troubled times, as the Philippines on Monday announced they would no longer be seeking a military pact with the US, disputes over the South China Sea remain fierce between China and numerous ASEAN countries, as well as the perceived debt-diplomacy of China that has seen the world’s second largest economy pour unprecedented investment into infrastructure throughout the region under the Belt and Road Initiative.  

This, coupled with the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, the political upheaval in Malaysia and the Kem Sokha trial in Cambodia would have meant for a particularly tense summit.

As the world reels from the coronavirus outbreak that has so far spread to over 60 countries and claimed over 3,000 lives, the urgency of public health outweighs that of multilateral diplomacy, especially in Southeast Asia where experts worry that health systems are not prepared for the outbreak. 

Epidemiology professor, Marc Lipsitch of Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health spoke to Bloomberg to express his doubts over the region’s ability to detect the virus.

“We found that Indonesia, as well as possibly Cambodia and certainly Thailand, were reporting fewer cases than you’d expect given the number of travelers,” he said, adding “We presented that as an indicator that these countries were missing cases that didn’t get detected.”

 


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