The US absence at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations trade meeting and the Obama administration's failure to name an ambassador to the bloc drew criticism from Senator Richard Lugar and a Washington think tank.
The US didn't send a trade representative to a meeting in Vietnam this week of Asean economic ministers, where they are holding talks with counterparts from Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Russia.
"The gap in US strategy for intensifying its engagement in Southeast Asia is clearly trade," Ernest Bower, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in a report Wednesday. "Confidence in the United States and its ability to lead and follow through on commitments is based on its economic well-being, and that status is being questioned by friends and competitors alike in Asia."
President Barack Obama, who became the first US leader to meet with the 10-member bloc in November, has aimed to increase trade with Asia to help meet a January pledge to double exports in five years. Asean was the fourth-biggest market for US goods last year and fifth-largest trading partner.
"It's a disappointment," Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, told journalists Thursday at the meeting held in the central Vietnamese city of Da Nang. "But there are many layers of engagement."
Obama may meet his Asean counterparts for another summit toward the end of the year, Surin said. Economic ministers from the bloc traveled to the US earlier this year to promote trade.
"The private sector is here, the US-Asean Business Council, and in the US system they work in close coordination," Surin said.
Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged Obama to quickly name an ambassador to Asean before he meets with its leaders in the coming months, Agence France-Presse reported, citing a letter to the president. The previous ambassador, Scot Marciel, was appointed as the next envoy to Indonesia, Asean's biggest economy.
China's total trade with Asean surpassed the US in the past decade, growing to $178 billion last year. China's share of Southeast Asia's total commerce has increased to 11.6 percent from 4 percent in that time, whereas the US portion fell to 9.7 percent from 15 percent, Asean statistics show.
Asean is rich in coal, oil and precious metals as well as containing sea lanes vital to world trade. Asean aims to form an economic community modeled on the European Union, though without a common currency, by 2015. It has already signed free-trade accords with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.