Eighty Percent of U.S. Asia Policy Is Just Showing Up

With China throwing its weight around the South China Sea, and snapping at Japan for its plans to buy disputed islands, the waters of the Pacific are looking a little choppy these days.

Time for a little high-level diplomacy, you might think -- something that not only eases tensions but also refocuses the nations of the Asia-Pacific on the enormous economic stakes they have in regional peace and stability.

If the administration of President Barack Obama is taking seriously this week’s meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation bloc, however, it has a funny way of showing it. Granted, President Obama has a good excuse for not attending the APEC leaders meeting in Vladivostok, Russia. But why did Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner not attend the earlier meeting of his fellow finance ministers in Moscow?

More egregiously, why did U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, the ostensible point person for the administration’s lofty goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2015, skip both the APEC meeting and the latest Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks to attend the Democratic National Convention in his “personal capacity.” His choice fails the crucial Woody Allen test for effective job performance -- the one that says “80 percent of life is just showing up.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has taken Obama’s place at the APEC leaders’ summit; Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats is filling in at APEC’s foreign ministers table; and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis has filled in for Kirk, as Undersecretary of Treasury Lael Brainard did for her boss. So at least there are no empty U.S. chairs at what has been, for the past 30 years, the chief Asia-Pacific venue for economic talks. But as diplomatic signals go, this one doesn’t exactly affirm the administration’s so-called pivot to Asia.

Since its founding in 1989, APEC has done a remarkable job of promoting growth and integration among economies that account for nearly half the world’s trade. The average tariff rate among its members has dropped from 16 percent to 5 percent, in part because of the liberalization measures put forward in APEC’s voluntary Individual Action Plans. The 1994 Bogor Declaration for “free and open trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific” created the consensus and underpinnings for , which was launched in 2005.

Yes, APEC meetings can be long on set pieces and short on concrete results and the forum has lost some prominence and clout to groupings such as the East Asia Summit. And yes, the incipient Trans-Pacific Partnership offers the prospect of binding commitments to spur trade, not consensus-driven, voluntary measures.

Yet APEC not only remains an invaluable incubator for ideas, it is also the one forum that brings together leaders from both sides of the Pacific. As former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, one of APEC’s founding fathers, has pointed out, such gatherings have been particularly useful in breaking the ice between Japan’s and China’s leaders. And just as at the United Nations General Assembly, side meetings have loosened numerous logjams, whether on U.S.-China trade or on getting Indonesia to agree to an international peacekeeping force in East Timor. Even the goofy photo-ops in over-the-top local garb -- a tradition begun by President Bill Clinton that President Obama nixed last year -- can help bridge gaps. That’s not to mention what APEC does at the working level to encourage informal contacts and habits of cooperation.

Perhaps because so many U.S. diplomats are lawyers, or perhaps because the habits of a hegemon are hard to break, U.S. diplomacy often takes on a cold, transactional cast. Still, schmoozing and shoulder-rubbing carry added importance at a time of . Even as Asia’s constellation of regional groupings grows, APEC’s talk shop remains central and deserves more attention from the U.S. than it seems to be getting. As Winston Churchill once said in another context, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.