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Asia Minute: U.S. is playing host to an unusual ASEAN summit this week

 ASEAN summit Joe Biden
Susan Walsh/AP
President Joe Biden participates virtually in the U.S.-ASEAN Summit from the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. It was the first time the United States participated in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations since 2017, when President Donald Trump participated in the summit. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

While the U.S. government continues to keep a close watch on events in Ukraine, Southeast Asia will be a focus this week in Washington. Starting Thursday, the U.S. is hosting an unusual gathering, which may produce more symbolism than substance.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was founded in the midst of the Vietnam war, in part to prevent the regional spread of communism.

Today it’s doubled from its original size to 10 members — and the emphasis of the group has shifted from politics to trade.

But this should not be confused with a gathering of democratic countries.

Myanmar is ruled by a military junta that seized power from an elected civilian government in February 2021. The military leader is not invited to this meeting.

Laos and Vietnam are ruled by single-party governments. Thailand’s prime minister came to power in a military coup. Cambodia is led by an authoritarian former military commander, while Brunei is a monarchy — and not a constitutional one.

The president of the Philippines is leaving office next month and won’t be coming to Washington.

The leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore will be coming, but this is not a group united by a single viewpoint.

Even the war in Ukraine draws mixed views.

Most joined the U.N. resolution condemning Russia’s invasion, but Singapore is the only one in the group to impose sanctions on Moscow.

As for U.S. goals for this ASEAN summit, China is a likely target audience.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the gathering is part of U.S. efforts to support a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Bill Dorman has been the news director at Hawaiʻi Public Radio since 2011.
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