Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, making a goodwill visit here Monday to inspect reconstruction efforts after the Indian Ocean tsunami, was dogged with questions about her decision to skip an annual gathering of Southeast Asian nations this month that had been a regular diplomatic stop for her predecessors.
For more than two decades, every secretary of state has attended important meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and Rice's choice -- which she officially confirmed Monday -- has been interpreted in the region as a major diplomatic snub. Her deputy, Robert B. Zoellick, will go instead, she said.
Before flying by helicopter to this tiny village to visit a school and dormitories being built for tsunami orphans, Rice told reporters in Thailand's Phuket resort area that she had "other essential travel elsewhere that I have to do in roughly the same time frame" when the 10-member group holds a ministerial meeting July 24-29 in Vientiane, Laos.
"I am really sorry I am not able to go," Rice added, describing ASEAN as a "vital organization that I want to engage more."
Rice is planning a trip to Africa later this month, aides said. She has made no secret of her desire to cut down on the routine summitry that clogs the calendar of top diplomats, having already passed up a U.S.-European Union meeting that was considered de rigueur.
After touring the reconstruction site and joining about 50 fresh-scrubbed students for a rendition of the "ABC" song in English, Rice again was asked why she was passing up the ASEAN event. Her host, Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, curtly told the reporter to keep the question limited to the tsunami before Rice answered: "I'm here to show how much the United States cares about Southeast Asia."
The United States has pledged nearly $1 billion in aid -- and private contributions have topped that -- to help rebuild areas devastated by the earthquake-driven tsunami that struck 11 countries on Dec. 26, killing more than 220,000 people. Many of the more than 5,000 dead in Thailand were foreign tourists vacationing along the pristine beaches of Phuket.
U.S. secretaries of state have generally arrived at the tail end of ASEAN ministerial meetings, attending discussions between ASEAN and its major trading partners as well as an Asia-Pacific security meeting, which this year will be held July 28-29. Rice's predecessor, Colin L. Powell, twice used the venue to hold talks with his North Korean counterpart.
Foreign ministers attending the meeting are also expected to partake in humorous song-and-dance performances poking fun at themselves and their colleagues.
As word leaked out in recent weeks that Rice would not attend, many commentators interpreted the move as a sign that the United States was ceding the region to China, which is rapidly building trade and diplomatic links with ASEAN's members. Later this month, for instance, China and Indonesia will sign a strategic partnership between their defense industries.
Kavi Chongkittavorn, the editor of the Nation, an English-language daily in Thailand, wrote in a commentary Monday that Rice's absence "will be criticized as a sign of disinterest in the region" and "will not resonate well."
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, that "the absence is sending an uneasy signal" and he hoped it did not indicate the United States was downgrading its interest in Southeast Asia.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, on an official visit to Washington to sign a strategic partnership agreement with the United States, said that Rice's absence from the ASEAN summit might mean the United States will miss an opportunity to strengthen its ties to the region at a time when China is making inroads.
"We are disappointed, of course," Lee said in an interview at his Georgetown hotel. "We understand that she's preoccupied with North Korea and she's meeting some other important persons in China."
"The Chinese are working very hard to cultivate the ASEAN countries, very intelligently and effectively," Lee said. "And I think the right response for America is similarly intelligently and effectively to develop your links with the ASEAN countries, because actually all of the countries want to have good links in all directions."
U.S. officials dismissed the uproar over Rice's plans not to attend the conference as silly and unproductive. They said Zoellick was a powerful deputy with vast experience in the region who already knows many key officials from his tenure as U.S. trade representative.
Complicating matters is that Burma -- earlier labeled by Rice as an "outpost of tyranny" -- is due to take over the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN next year. Some human rights activists said Rice might have been able to make a better case for withholding the chairmanship from Burma by attending this year's meeting and threatening not to show up if Burma hosted next year's gathering.
Correspondent Keith B. Richburg in Washington contributed to this report.