As Asian foreign ministers gather this week in Laos to discuss regional security issues, the main sideline topic is likely to be US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's no-show.
Citing a scheduling clash, Rice is sending deputy Robert Zoellick to the annual forum, which runs July 28-29 during a summit held by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Foreign ministers from China, Japan, the Koreas, India, and Pakistan are among the other "dialog partners" to ASEAN.
US officials insist that no snub is intended, nor any signal that the US isn't paying attention to Asia. Washington has its hands full with another Asian summit this week, the six-party talks with North Korea. And Mr. Zoellick is a familiar face in Asian capitals from his previous job as US trade negotiator.
But the move has disappointed Asian countries who see Rice as close to President Bush. "Let's be candid. The foreign ministers of ASEAN are not ecstatic about the decision," Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo told reporters in Manila.
Rice's no-show comes at a time when China is rapidly extending its economic and political ties in Southeast Asia. Its commercial strength and rising thirst for raw materials and factory inputs commands the rapt attention of Asian leaders who are eager to "feed the dragon." By contrast, the US is seen as distracted by Iraq and the wider war on terror.
Nascent US-China diplomatic rivalries have begun emerging around the globe and Southeast Asia is likely to be an early testing ground for China's ability to wield soft power. But it's not just Chinese investments, trade, and pandas on loan that are turning heads. Last week the Pentagon warned that China's rapid military buildup could pose a long-term threat to stability in Asia, a claim disputed by Beijing.
For now, many Southeast Asian leaders seem happy to keep doing business with Beijing, while favoring a US security presence in Asia's potentially stormy waters.
"We see a gradual tipping of balance in favor of China [in Southeast Asia]. It's largely diplomatic influence and economic relations, though. In terms of military power, the US is by far the strongest," says Joseph Cheng, an expert on China-ASEAN relations at Hong Kong's City University.
Last year, China agreed to create a regional trading bloc with ASEAN by 2010. It would be the world's largest by population. Analysts say that for Beijing, such a bloc would serve as a counterweight to Western-led economic clubs and show that China is the region's natural partner.
At the same time, the rise of China is a useful bargaining chip for Southeast Asian leaders trying to wring concessions from Washington and Tokyo, which have in the past supplied much of the capital and know-how to develop the region.
"ASEAN countries want to make sure the relationship is nicely balanced between China and Japan and the US," says Sheng Lijun, a senior fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Diplomats suggest ASEAN might share some of the blame for slipping down Rice's priority list. The organization "meets a lot [and] talks a lot," says one, adding that ASEAN shies away from bold actions and is reluctant to push recalcitrant members.
One irritant in US-ASEAN relations is military-ruled Burma, which is due to assume the organization's rotating chair in 2006. Under pressure from the US and the European Union, which have both sanctioned Burma over its political repression, ASEAN members, who favor consensus over confrontation, have tried to find a face-saving way to skip Burma's chairmanship. The Burmese have hinted they may opt to decline the chair to head off conflict - and more no-shows.
"If Burma has the chair, it's unlikely that we or other dialog partners would go to Rangoon," says a senior US official in the region, referring to the Burmese capital. "Burma is a thorn in ASEAN's side. It impedes their ability as an organization to move forward on a lot of their agenda items with the rest of the world."
Burma isn't the only repressive ASEAN state to have drawn Washington's ire. Vietnam has been criticized for curbing religious freedoms and jailing political prisoners. Sen. Mitch McConnell frequently assailed Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as a tyrant and has blocked direct US aid to Cambodia, one of Asia's poorest nations.
However, US pressure on Cambodia and Burma hasn't produced democratic reforms. Instead, say analysts and Western diplomats, it has pushed their governments further in the direction of China, which offers political and economic support with fewer strings attached.
Hun Sen recently returned from China with pledges of bilateral loans and investments put at $400 million. Western and Japanese donors pumped around $500 million into Cambodia in 2004.
Coupled with China's reported interest in acquiring a naval docking base in Cambodia and its military aid to Burma, such largess could signal a shift to an expansionist presence in the region. China has competing territorial claims in the South China Sea with other ASEAN members, including Vietnam.
"China wants to make sure its neighbors and near-neighbors don't create problems, particularly when they have resources that it wants," says a senior European diplomat in the region.
Chinese leaders have presented their diplomatic dance in Southeast Asia as a commercially driven win-win. Analysts say Beijing is reaping political goodwill from high-profile investments in the region, while leaving unanswered a key question about its long-term goal.
"China's medium-term policy is to be seen as a strong benign partner [in Southeast Asia]. What's less certain is that once China becomes that strong power and sits, let's say, shoulder to shoulder with the US, how will it behave then?" asks Razak Baginda, director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center in Kuala Lumpur.