Cambodia, scene of the killing fields of genocide less than four decades ago, has just hosted the seventh East Asia Summit, which brought together leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea and the U.S. The summit concluded Tuesday on a positive note.
ASEAN, created in 1967, has growing influence thanks to Asia's rapid long-term economic expansion, greatly boosted by the Cold War's end and China's economic opening. This gathering's main focus was economic, but military dimensions also were evident.
The gathering provided an opportunity for President Barack Obama and China's new premier, Wen Jiabao, to meet. Beneath the friendly formal public statements, significant disagreements exist regarding trade. Obama spoke of the imperative need 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 organization held in Vladivostok, Siberia. Its host was Vladimir Putin, who as prime minister seized the opportunity to highlight his nation's extensive involvements in Asia.
APEC was conceived by Australia's 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, U.S. 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.
Obama, in his first few months in office in 2009, participated in the APEC summit in Singapore and visited 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 slow recovery.
The 2006 APEC summit, held in Vietnam, 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 UN 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 Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of After the Cold War.)