One bit of the Asian Century that has already arrived in Canberra is the way the Prime Minister keeps flying off to meet Asian leaders.

Over a three month period, Julia Gillard has done Asia Pacific duty at APEC in Vladivostok, attended the Asia-Europe summit in Vientiane, and co-chaired the Bali Democracy Forum with the presidents of Indonesia and South Korea. Back in June, Gillard was at the G20 summit in Mexico, and the G20 is as much an expression of the Asian Century as any of the other talkfests. Now Gillard is back in Canberra after her final trip to the peak for this year, the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.

The summit cycle, especially in the final third of the year, has become an established element in an Australian prime minister's calendar. This is far from ho-hum stuff, but the rituals of regionalism, jet speeds and satellite saturation conspire to deliver a certain recurrent familiarity. All the leaders' group photos start to blur – even the ones with funny shirts.

One benefit of sticking around Canberra for decades is the ability to remark on how remarkable all this summitry is for a nation that still anguishes over notions of region and belonging. 

When I started reporting Australia's leader going to summits in the 1970s, the chance for prime ministerial multilateralism was decidedly limited. The PM got to go to the Commonwealth every two years to talk about Africa, while the new and exciting chance for summitry was offered by the South Pacific Forum. Apart from that, zilch!

Malcolm Fraser went to one ASEAN summit (they then occurred only once or twice a decade) and his pining to attend to the G7 never got beyond the wishing and hoping stage.

That era of famine has slowly given way to a feast of fly-away functions. The Asia summitry which has become a recurring element of the prime ministerial diary is more a reflection than a driver of an era of profound change. Yet constant summitry has shaped the job description of this Oz leader and all who will follow her. 

It was noteworthy (in the sense of being shocking and having few precedents) that The Australian started this week with an editorial praising Gillard's performance on the summit trail, 'successfully representing Australia on the world stage':

Only the most churlish would dispute that the Prime Minister deserves praise for the way she has represented our interests in the 10 overseas trips she has made in the past 12 months. She clearly would not lay claim to being a modern-day Talleyrand, but she has made good on her pledge when she made her "I'm not passionate about foreign affairs" admission to be "a feisty advocate" for our national interests.

Treasure that editorial endorsement for its rarity while accepting its accuracy.

Gillard has tracked John Howard in her summit trajectory, starting off as reluctant, even resistant, yet slowly growing in confidence through repeat exposure. Part of that evolution is the simple realisation, on reaching the summit, that all politicians, whatever system they emerge from, have similarities. An apparatchik is ever an apparatchik; they must always be able to count and reach to control. And all apparatchiks understand the rule Ronald Reagan urged on his negotiators: 'When you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat.'

So, in Phnom Penh, there was little light shed on the vexed issue of the South China Sea, but the heat keeps building. 

The East Asia Summit was also notable for the formal launch of a significant race between trade groupings centred on the US and China. Or to put the contest in the negative, one version of Asia's trade future that excludes China and another that excludes the US. Stephen Grenville gives an excellent account of these 'two different and perhaps competing approaches to trade liberalisation': the ASEAN-centred Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the US-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership. As I've argued previously, this is a contest between Chinese noodles and a US steak dinner, and all sides are becoming more explicit in noting that element of contest between the Asian future imagined by the lawyers and lobbyists in Washington against Asia's mandarins and moguls.

Australia is part of both efforts but claims that this competition can turn out to be complimentary. That is the optimistic view offered by the Asian Century White Paper while being explicit in seeing that a race is afoot:

Negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership could create momentum for competitive liberalisation and put Australia on two complementary pathways to a free trade area of the Asia–Pacific. Australia welcomes and encourages these processes. We recognise that outcomes agreed in one negotiation that facilitate deeper economic integration will encourage new members to join, and also create pressure to adopt similar liberalisation in competing negotiations.

At the summit, the leaders can appear as complementary as they like. In the negotiating trenches, the words from this passage that count will be 'competition' and 'pressure'. The heat matters as much as the light.

The point about a rolling series of summits is to get some sense of cohesion and control in a deeply competitive environment. As Gillard flew back from her final leaders' meeting of the year, she could reflect that the Phnom Penh version, in both its geo-economic and geo-political dimensions, underscored the truth that what cannot be agreed at the summit is as important as what can be clinched.

Photo by Flickr user Julia Gillard.