Last week's summitry in Myanmar was full of media soundbites and photo ops but the policy scorecard was won by Beijing.
During a period of US weakness (with Obama suffering at the midterms and many in the region doubting his Administration's ability to fulfill the great Asia Pivot promise), China asserted itself in Myanmar.
Beijing came offering some $20 billion in development loans for Southeast Asian states. It also proposed a friendship treaty with ASEAN as well as continuing its favoured bilateral approach in signing $7.8 billion in deals with Myanmar and, in the days leading to the summit, between $500-700 million annually in development loans to Cambodia.
As China doled out the cash, Obama was left wanting. It seemed to fall to his personal charisma and popularity in the region to carry America's load. 'I have a very close association with Indonesia having spent a good deal of my childhood there', he reminded his counterparts during a meeting with Joko Widodo. His mantle as America's most Asia-focused president is often recalled in the region. But harder policy (a US-ASEAN Summit Fact Sheet is here) on this trip went missing.
Obama wooed an admiring audience of young Southeast Asian leaders in a town hall meeting in Myanmar. After strong support of her struggle for the presidency, Obama shared an affectionate if awkward hug with Aung San Suu Kyi during their press conference. In that conference, she noted that the country's reform process is going through a 'bumpy patch' but that it could be overcome. Post summit, that 'bump' came for her with the speaker of the lower house this week categorically stating that there would be no changes to the constitution, thus barring Aung San Suu Kyi from contesting the presidency. The US may be caught backing a scratched horse in next year's election and souring other relationships.
On the economic front, while China's Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and other development loans have made headlines, few others have made progress.
As RSIS's Yang Razali Kassim wrote last week, China has recently out-manoeuvered the US for the mantle of Asia Pacific economic leadership. The APEC Summit showed as much, as did Southeast Asian support for the AIIB. Obama left the long week of summitry in the region (including the G20 and APEC) without the desired progress on the TPP. Only a handful of ASEAN states are involved in TPP negotiations due largely to the high threshold of trade liberalisation required.
Despite some trademark Obama charm diplomacy in Myanmar, the fact remains that his promises have been long in materialising. While his ambitions of an Asian-focused presidency are still well received, they lack the bite they once had. And for Southeast Asian states, relations with the US are easier to mend than with China. After all, Obama is an outgoing president with a couple of years left; Xi's tenure will hold long into next decade.
The rounds of summitry in Myanmar seemed to reflect this reality. Indeed, as Thein Sein noted in his Chairman's statement, Southeast Asia is undergoing a period of 'rapidly changing regional and international dynamics'. Last week signaled that China is steering this change.