HONG KONG: Many in East Asia were quietly grateful for the fact that 9/11, the Iraq war, and a general Washington obsession with rearranging the Middle East diverted the Bush administration from its early focus on China as the major global strategic threat to U.S. interests. Instead, relations with China proceeded relatively smoothly.
Moreover, Washington's initial hard-line stance on North Korea gradually shifted towards acceptance of the need for negotiation with Pyongyang.
But six years on, the pendulum has swung. Washington's Middle East obsession remains as strong as ever, while much of East Asia, excepting China, feels badly in need of attention. Add that to Japan's self-marginalization and the region looks ever more lopsided diplomatically.
As the secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Henry Paulson Jr., was making yet another visit to China this past week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was conspicuously absent from the Asian Regional forum in Manila, the annual meeting of ministers from the Association of South East Asia Nations and other important Asian and non-Asian players in regional affairs. The foreign ministers of China, Japan, Russia, Australia and South Korea were all present, but Rice was too busy with yet another round of Middle East visits and sent her deputy John Negroponte.
Although there is scant sign that the Manila discussions will produce any significant outcome - or indeed were ever expected to - the symbolism of a U.S. presence does matter, particularly at a time when most of America's Asian friends continued to be worried by Washington's Middle East preoccupations as much as its policies.
Rice's absence simply rubbed in the fact that President George W. Bush will be absent from Asean's 40th anniversary celebrations to be held in Singapore in September. Again, there may be little of substance discussed there, but given that the United States was a prime mover in the establishment of Asean - at the height of the Vietnam war - as a regional bulwark of non-Communist states, Bush's absence will be symbolic of America's shift in priorities.
Today, Asean is focused as much on trade as political cooperation. But here again, American preoccupation with China trade issues - to the exclusion of its other major trade partners in the region - is causing concern. Most of these countries have much longer histories of being open to U.S. trade and investment than does China. Cumulatively, even excluding Japan, they are as important as China. Cumulatively they hold more U.S. Treasury debt than either China or Japan.
At the same time, they stand to lose heavily from any major breakdown in U.S.-China trade relations. They may feel grateful that they are not in the White House or congressional firing line for their trade surpluses or currency policies. But they do worry that when the United States thinks of East Asia at all, it thinks almost exclusively about China rather than about a global trading system, to which all of East Asia is closely integrated. Such engagements as there are tend to focus on free trade.
Japan, the biggest economic force in the region after China, remains sidelined by domestic politics. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attempted to make a new start by mending relations with Beijing while continuing to strengthen defense ties with the United States. But suggestions that Japan needs to be more assertive abroad and more self-consciously Japanese at home have raised international concerns. Abe's domestic failings - starkly revealed by the governing party's record losses in the recent upper house election - have further undermined Japan's influence and Tokyo's interest in playing a more active regional role. Japan did not even play any significant part in the nuclear negotiations with North Korea. Indeed, Tokyo now appears even more reluctant than Washington to engage with Pyongyang.
For the time being, an absent United States and a neutered Japan suit China fine. But they are not a recipe for regional stability. The era of U.S. hegemony may be over, but America remains by far the most important single military and economic influence in what for 40 years has been the world's fastest growing region, and looks likely to stay that way for at least another decade. The relationship needs nurturing.