Vientiane – The Asean Regional Forum (ARF), the region's only security forum, has often been dismissed by critics as nothing more than a talkshop. Now, it must grapple with the possibility of having its importance further diluted after foreign ministers from four key countries announced that they would not be able to attend the July 29 meeting in the Laotian capital.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice set the ball rolling by saying that she was too busy with the Middle East. Then Japanese Foreign Ministger Nobutaka Machimura said he had to be in New York this week to lobby for Japan's bid for permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council. Indian Foreign Minister K Natwar Singh apparently could not make it either because his presence was needed in the Indian Parliament which was debating foreign policy.
Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxiang caused the biggest ripples (after Dr Rice) when he left Vientiane on July 27 after meeting his Asean colleagues at their annual gathering. He said he had to leave early to begin a state visit to Myanmar, which was initially scheduled to start only after the ARF ended.
When asked why he was leaving early, Mr Li said: "Myanmar is the only Asean country I have never visited."
According to The Nation, it's very rare for all the foreign ministers of the major power brokers in the region and the world to skip the ARF meeting at the same time.
However, an Asean spokesman said on July 27 that the no-shows were not a source of worry. "Lots of them are here, but they are just leaving," Mr M C Abad told a news conference.
"The fact that many of them are here assures us they remain committed to the objectives of the ARF. They have said so."
Thai Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said Asean is disappointed by their absence but understands that they really have other urgent business to attend to.
"We understand that in today's world, things do crop up. They have some urgent things that they need to attend to and we hope that they will join us next year."
The ARF will discuss terrorism, maritime security and other matters.
* Key delegates won't be attending security forum (The Straits Times, July 28)
* Big Four give ARF talks a miss (Bangkok Post, July 28)