Amid the plethora of initials and acronyms bandied around in the past few days at a series of Asian summit meetings in Cebu, Philippines, one has been notable for its absence — the U.S. of A.
The successive meetings — of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean; the "Asean plus three" group, which adds China, Japan and South Korea; and the East Asian Summit, which includes India, Australia and New Zealand — have served to underline how far America's preoccupation with the Middle East has weakened its role in East Asia, at the very time many would welcome more U.S. engagement to balance the rise of China.
As it is, China has been setting the agenda and receiving the most attention. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines summed up the official fawning: "We are very happy to have China as our Big Brother in this region," she said, as Asean announced a trade pact with China.
In Cebu, Asean also made progress toward more organizational cohesion, moving beyond the informal "Asean way" of diplomacy and cooperation, which is often a recipe for pious platitudes. It is drafting a charter intended to provide a way of imposing sanctions on members — a small first step toward censuring the likes of Myanmar.
Much of what was said or announced at the Cebu meetings may prove little more than rhetoric and wishful thinking. Nonetheless, these meetings had more substance than the summit meeting of the one mainly Asian grouping of which the United States is a part — the 22-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, or APEC.
Cebu should have also underlined for both America and Europe how badly they need to conclude the now stalled round of world trade talks if they don't want to find themselves either disadvantaged in East Asia, or engaging in mutually self-destructive competition to secure bilateral trade deals with Asian nations.
The world more generally should take note of the proliferation of confusing and sometimes contradictory "free trade" agreements that will lead to confusion and, at worst, to new forms of protectionism.
Just how many documents labeled "free trade" are being bandied around was itself evident in Cebu. In the first place, Asean itself announced that it was bringing forward completion of its own free trade area to 2015. The accelerated timetable may prove as elusive as achievement of previous liberalization goals, which remain riddled with exceptions, not to mention the current absurdity of including Myanmar in any pact based on normal commerce.
But Asean is trying to make progress and its group identity has been bolstered by the trade deal it has announced with China. The deal, which extends an existing agreement to a variety of services, may not in practice go much beyond what China is granting under the World Trade Organization. But it further enhances China's leadership role to the disadvantage of the United States and Japan. It is also pressuring other countries to talk about free-trade agreements with China. Australia, among others, is considering starting negotiations.
Not wanting to be outdone by China, India is negotiating a so-called free-trade agreement with Asean, but it has so many exclusions and so long an implementation period that its purpose is mostly symbolic.
Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to sign bilateral trade deals around Asia, notably in South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand, are in danger of stalling — and President George W. Bush's fast-track negotiating authority expires in June.
The U.S. position in Asia — and the multilateral system in general — could be further undermined if the European Union, which long had a moratorium on bilateral deals, now goes ahead with its own plans for them.
Events in Cebu make it all the more urgent that WTO negotiations succeed. If they do not, East Asia may be in a better position than other regions to maintain momentum for liberalization — in which case the role of the West in this region will be further eroded.