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ASEAN, APEC and assorted global meetings entwine Asia ever tighter

Cambodia, which less than four decades ago was scene of the “killing fields” genocide, has just hosted the seventh East Asia Summit. The event brought together leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), plus Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea and the U.S. The summit concluded Nov. 20, on a positive note.

ASEAN, created in 1967, has growing influence thanks to the rapid long-term economic expansion of Asia, which has been greatly boosted by the end of the Cold War and economic opening of China. The main focus of this gathering was economic, but military dimensions also were evident.

The gathering provided an opportunity for U.S. President Barack Obama to meet Wen Jiabao, China's outgoing premier. Beneath the friendly formal public statements, significant disagreements exist on trade. Obama spoke of the imperative for clear rules of the road, an oblique reference to Washington's ongoing complaints about unfair trade practices.

China also is immersed in a complex collection of maritime conflicts over sections of the South China Sea. Beijing has declared sovereignty over islands and shoals also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Tensions with the last two nations in particular have grown over this year.

The Cambodia summit follows a September conference of the larger Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) organization held in Vladivostok Siberia. Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who hosted the gathering, seized the opportunity to highlight his nation's extensive involvement in Asia.

APEC was conceived by former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke. The initiative was embraced enthusiastically by President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker as the Cold War with the Soviet Union was slowly ending.

In the Atlantic region, NATO and the European Union can trace their origins back to the late 1940s and early 1950s respectively. Asia by contrast lacks the same long-established framework of collaborative institutions.

Since 1980, United States trade with Asia overall has been greater than with Europe. As this implies, the Pacific region encompasses a steadily expanding share of the world's economic product, investment and trade.

During his first months in office in 2009, President Obama participated in the APEC summit in Singapore as well as visiting South Korea. The trip in effect helped to strengthen Asia's regional organizations as principal partners of the G20.

This in turn reinforced intensive G20 efforts to mitigate the financial collapse and consequent recession, which was worldwide in scope but concentrated in the Atlantic region. Asia's economic strength has been crucial to the recovery, however slow.

The 2006 APEC summit was held in Vietnam. That gathering provided an opportunity to highlight that economy's modernization and growth, moving beyond decades of revolution and war.

Vietnam did not join ASEAN until 1995, reflecting the lingering bonds of Cold War as well as revolution. In 2006, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was honored during the summit.

The long Vietnam War in 1970 brought down the fragile but responsible Cambodia regime of Norodom Sihanouk, opening the door to terrifying totalitarian rule by the Khmer Rouge movement. That regime initiated genocide with resulting deaths estimated at more than two million people.

In December 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime. Today a U.N. tribunal persists in efforts to bring justice to those responsible for Cambodia's killing fields.

For decades, Cold War division defined relationships among nations. Today, free markets are dramatically diluting earlier ideological intensity.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War”(Macmillan/Palgrave and NYU Press). He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu

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