The Australian

By Rowan Callick

WHAT role will Brand USA play in Asia now it has emerged as President Barack Obama's top global focus? And how important will the regional groupings prove, for this process?

The first challenge for Washington is to complete the US recovery. Savings and productivity are both up and excess consumption is down. But unemployment has emerged as the big issue of the day - with companies making profits again, but not hiring. Jobs anxiety hangs like a gloomy cloud in the air.

In a recent poll, a majority of Americans said they thought international trade - which they viewed as sucking, not adding, jobs - was a negative for the US. There's a lot of leadership work to be done by Washington if Asian engagement is going to become an enduring bipartisan policy.

By comparison, as Miles Kahler, professor of Pacific international relations at the University of California, told a G'Day USA conference in Los Angeles recently: "Asia has had a good international crisis", with economic interdependence, including the US, becoming a pattern of regional architecture.

For instance, iPhones are assembled in China out of components from Japan, South Korea and the US. But, Kahler added, "no credible observer would connect current economic success in Asia with regional institutions. It's also unclear what effect they have had on peace in the region. If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Andrew Shearer, director of studies at the Lowy Institute, said many of Australia's regional initiatives were driven by "fear of marginalisation and exclusion".

Shearer calls it "the Peter Sellers approach: it's more about being there than about what we want to do when we get there."

Regional organisations fostered habits of co-operation, he said. "But they are no panacea. Power relations shape regional order rather than the reverse."

He praised the role of "minilaterals" - such as the group that came together to respond to the Asian tsunami on Boxing Day 2004: Japan, India, the US and Australia. "They tend to be functional and bottom-up, rather than redesigning the whole region from scratch."

Charles Morrison, president of the East-West Centre in Washington, said the US viewed joining the ASEAN process, via the annual East Asia Summits, as important because of the global power transition under way, "helping project our values into the international system".

APEC "has been struggling for some years, because it widened before it deepened" - signing up disparate new members rather than extending its remit to, for instance, security concerns.

Morrison said that "Kevin Rudd's Asia-Pacific community proposal was about doing everything with everyone in one place. It didn't get far, but he has declared victory because the US and Russia have joined the EAS. Those meetings have advantages, they may be a good talking place, but I don't think they will solve many issues.

"They are ASEAN-driven, so they're complicated by ASEAN politics, with the US entering as a second-class citizen - Australia too. Not like APEC, where everyone is first class, but which is much more institutionalised than anyone expected."

Morrison said he could not imagine a US president going to ASEAN (via the EAS) every year. "Next time, in Jakarta, yes, but in 2012 when there's an election? Then if he doesn't go, everyone will say he is forgetting Asia all over again."

Kantathi Suphamongkhon, former foreign minister of Thailand and now professor of law and diplomacy at University of California LA, said ASEAN "welcomes the US coming out as a global actor again".

It wasn't a matter of ASEAN making the US - or Australia - second class, but of its "just playing host to the East Asia Summit, convening the meetings and inviting the key players".

He said the US involvement - and its welcome within Asia - could be attributed to the more forceful stance taken by China over the past 18 months.

But China's long-term future was also "to a considerable degree dependent on the recovery of the US economy", said Kim Beazley, Australia's ambassador to the US.

He said the international situation was different from the Cold War era, with China critical to the global economy.

Alan Dupont, the director of the Centre for International Security Studies at Sydney University, said that "while the two don't want conflicts, they have often occurred from miscalculations . . . driven by domestic political concerns."

As a result there would now be "a premium on more subtle and thoughtful diplomacy - while making sure we don't give away the shop".

And Richard Rigby, director of the China Institute at the Australian National University, said China's ruling Communist Party did not differentiate between the nation and itself.

"At every stage of the development process since economic opening began in 1978, people have said the next step will be the really tricky one. But they pull it off. We have to plan on the probability that they will keep growing.

"China would also like to dominate the Asia-Pacific region. Not by sending troops, but by fostering the situation where if a leader of a country has an idea, he or she then starts to consider automatically: what would China think about that? So that China's interests are taken into account automatically."

Disappointingly, Australia lacks a role with a broad, public-intellectual remit on Asia such as that of Sydney University's US Studies Centre, or a figure as energetic and articulate as chief executive Geoff Garrett to fill it. "Economically, militarily and politically, the balance seems to have shifted in favour of China and away from the US in the past couple of years," he said.