Prime Minister Hun Sen has agreed with US President Donald Trump to postpone next week’s US-Asean special summit due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Speaking to more than 1,000 students during a graduation ceremony on Monday at the National Institute of Education, Hun Sen said the postponement was due to the current coronavirus situation.
“The US and the US President know the reasons for the postponement, and it is only himself or his colleagues that can confirm the reasons. From my understanding, the main reason is that the US is focusing on fighting against the spread of Covid-19,” the prime minister said.
He said that some analysts have claimed that the cancellation is due to the tripartite boycott by the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia [which is facing political uncertainties]. However, Hun Sen clarified that he agreed with Trump in light of Covid-19 concerns.
“The US places a high value on the importance of US-Asean relations. Unfortunately, President Trump missed the Asean summits in 2018 and 2019, when he sent Vice-President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser Robert O’brian to attend respectively.
Hun Sen said the decision to only send the National Security Advisor caused some Asean leaders to reject the meeting as not of a level playing field. He also recognised that there was further unhappiness when O’brian could only meet the leaders from Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos.
However he said despite this, it was not too late to still meet when the time was right. The current coronavirus situation and the run-up to the US presidential election, he said, were reasons behind the postponement.
He stressed that it had nothing to do with the US underestimating the importance of the Asean summit.
“It doesn’t mean that the US doesn’t care. President Trump wrote letters to heads of states inviting them to attend the summit, and we all agreed on the date. Unfortunately, events have transpired that mean the summit can now no longer go ahead on that date,” he said.
US embassy spokesman in Phnom Penh Arend Zwartjes said the White House had postponed the meeting planned for March 14 in Las Vegas, due to challenges facing the international community from the outbreak of Covid19.
He said the decision would allow governments to remain focused on protecting the health and safety of their people.
“We look forward to future discussions with Asean leaders that will advance the US-Asean strategic partnership and highlight the centrality in our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
“Asean is at the heart of our free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy, and the US reaffirms our enduring partnership, commitment to shared principles, and our deep security and economic cooperation,” Zwartjes said.
Bradley Jensen Murg, an assistant professor of Political Science and director of Global Development Studies at Seattle Pacific University, said the cancellation of the US-Asean Summit directly stemmed from the Covid-19 situation, which is rapidly worsening in the US.
“I don’t think the cancellation should be viewed as anything other than a purely practical decision owing to the current challenges confronting global public health,” he said, adding that Washington had worked diligently over the last year to improve relations with Asean leaders.