DANANG, August 26, 2010 (AFP) - The head of ASEAN on Thursday 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.
Another analyst, Washington-based Ernest Bower, faulted the US' absence from this week's meetings, which are attended by ministers from Japan, China, the European Union and other ASEAN partners.
Bower, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, blamed domestic politics, saying the administration's trade officials are "being held hostage by the White House and its focus on US midterm elections in November".
Obama has struggled to agree on a trade policy with members of his own Democratic Party while a weak economy causes political challenges.
Tay said that although the US does not seem ready to seriously discuss free trade, it has made its presence felt in Southeast Asia over issues such as Myanmar's military rulers and disputes over the South China Sea.
"I think, overall, the engagement between the US and ASEAN has become more serious than before," Tay said by telephone.
On her visit to Vietnam, Clinton said the ASEAN region of nearly 600 million people is America's sixth-largest export market and hosts more US business investment than China.
She said Obama will invite Southeast Asian leaders to a summit in Washington later this year, to follow up an inaugural meeting last year in Singapore.
"We are now looking forward to the second summit" but a date has not yet been finalised, Surin said Thursday.
China's Commerce Minister Chen Deming said on the sidelines of the Vietnam talks, which conclude Friday, that he hoped for wider use of the yuan in trade with Southeast Asia.
"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.