An unusual attempt to hammer out a "shared vision for Asia" begins Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur. The meeting, which brings together 16 Pacific nations and was essentially sponsored by China, does not include the United States. Washington was not invited to the East Asian summit, despite the fact that the US is the de facto security guarantor of the region.
On the summit's eve, Malaysian foreign minister Syed Hamid said Washington could participate if it signs a "Treaty of Amity and Cooperation" that all members agree to. But the invitations went out nine months ago; US participation at this point would seem awkward and lacking dignity, say State Department sources who called the meeting a "black box" whose purpose is hard to gauge.
While the summit may become a new talking shop mired in squabbles, it nonetheless seeks to shape a distinct regional political community insulated from US influence.
The gathering is a bold coming-of-age statement that Asians are unwilling to rely for leadership on a Washington preoccupied by the war on terror, analysts say, and that nations like China are coming to the fore.
"Asians are tired of waiting for Washington to start an Asian process," says Scott Snyder of the New York-based Asia Foundation. "That's what this summit shows. In 1990 our [US] mental map of Europe changed drastically [when the Berlin Wall fell]. But that has not happened since 1945 in the Pacific."
More grandly, the open-ended agenda highlights how dynamic and changeable the entire Pacific region has become in recent years. In a way unique to Asia, experts say, the region is moving swiftly and fluidly - but in an uncertain direction.
"The Asia region is extremely dynamic," says Richard Bitzinger of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "It is a huge area with very few agreements on how to move forward. US-South Korea isn't good at the moment. Japan-South Korea is a problem. We don't know where China is headed, really."
Participants include the 10-member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), plus Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand. The idea for the summit took off at the urging of Malaysia and China.
So far, there have been widely divergent views about the purpose of the group. "There is no shared vision about the community yet," says Eric Teo of the Singapore Institute. "Kuala Lumpur is just a first step."
Despite the omission of the US, Washington will have several allies at the confab. Japan, for example, has worked to include Australia and New Zealand, over the objections of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who first conceived of a summit of East Asian leaders 14 years ago. Mr. Mahathir said that the two states from "Down Under" were not Asian enough, and were de facto "sheriffs" of the US at the summit.
Australia and New Zealand were allowed in after signing the amity treaty, an agreement by the 16 nations to resolve disputes through nonviolent means and to not meddle in the internal problems of the others - the latter point being emphasized especially by Beijing. The inclusion of heavyweights like Japan, India, and Australia have mitigated initial concerns in the region that China could dominate the new club.
Tussles between Japan and China have raised tensions heading into the summit. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Monday in Malaysia that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi won't own up to his country's history of violence in Asia, making him the main cause of a rift in relations between the two nations. Last week, Chinese and South Korean officials said there would be no sideline meeting with Japan.
The absence of Taiwan has also caused friction. "Can you have a true East Asian Community when one of the region's most vibrant economies is specifically excluded?" asks Ralph Cossa of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The summit comes on the heels of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group in Seoul, considered the main forum for US Asia policy. President Bush spent much of his Asia trip last month defending the war on terror.
"The US has a global policy, the war on terror, but it doesn't have an Asia-specific policy," says Soeya Yoshihide of Keio University in Tokyo. "This doesn't offer us enough. Asians need to start looking more closely after our affairs."
"For decades [Americans] haven't had to worry about other parties in Asia shaping the environment in ways that might be unfavorable to us," says Mr. Snyder. "But now we are called upon to state what values the US feels are nonnegotiable in the East Asian community, and we haven't."