Locking Uncle Sam out of Asia

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Big-power summits have had little effect since the end of the cold war. But in Asia, where old rivalries are still tense, their potential is still huge. On Monday, 16 leaders hold the first Asia-wide summit. The results may be few, but note: The region's biggest military and economic player, the US, wasn't invited.

America's staunchest allies in the region, such as Japan and Australia, were willing to exclude their cross-Pacific partner in helping form this new club, while assuring Washington that nothing untoward was intended by it.

They could hardly pass up joining a party hosted by 10 Southeast Asian nations that includes the world's most populous countries, China and India, whose economies are booming.

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From its self-interest, India sees this summit in Malaysia as the seed for an East Asian Free Trade Area, like the early European Union. This vision is possible as many more Asian nations base their economies less on exports to America and more on business with each other. China, for instance, recently replaced the US as Japan's biggest trade partner. In 2003, Asia's share of exports within the region was 54 percent, close to that between the EU nations.

China, however, which already is the region's economic elephant in terms of export competition, has a political goal for the summit. It wants both to reduce US influence in Asia while assuring China's neighbors that its so-called "peaceful rise" means it is just one of the boys. "Each country is an equal member of the region," a Chinese spokesman said last week.

While China's hardly an equal, it, like others at this summit, could only attend if it signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, as required by the host, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The treaty calls for signatories to settle disputes by peaceful means and not to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

Just from the start, then, the summit appears to help pacify China as an emerging military power. And yet, China also has excluded Taiwan from this meeting and refuses to rule out using force to take the island nation.

But China's new leader, Hu Jintao, unlike his predecessor, appears more interested in redistributing China's new wealth to its restless farmers than directly confronting Taiwan or the US. His methods of blunting US influence will be more subtle, such as this regional summit.

Mr. Hu, however, lost ground when he was unable to block Australia and India from joining the (misnamed) East Asia Summit. And given historic differences between nations in the region - especially Tokyo and Beijing - it's unlikely this summit will be able to produce an action plan other than calling for another summit next year.

But the potential of these summits still poses a challenge to the US. They send a signal that America's Asian allies may no longer rely on it to be the regional broker and benign, big influence. The Bush administration, preoccupied with Iraq, has had a short attention span with Asia. It often avoids chances to boost ties, and focuses more on China's emerging military than its subtle diplomacy.

This summit, even though more form than substance, may fill a vacuum left by Washington's neglect. Americans can't afford not to stay on Asia's fast-moving train.

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