The gathering of Asians and Americans, all experienced in dealing with trans-Pacific issues, quickly zeroed in on a basic obstacle to better relations between nations of this region. At an East-West Center seminar in Hawaii, Americans and Asians alike pointed to Washington.
"The atmosphere in Washington is the worst in the memory of anyone now alive," said James Kelly, who as an assistant secretary of state headed the East Asia division of that department during President George W. Bush's first term.
"The inattention to Asia is unfortunate but probably natural," Kelly said, referring to the demands of the war in Iraq, the conflagration between Israel and Hezbollah terrorists and attempts to contain the nuclear ambitions of Iran.
"There is an insufficient realization that Asia has become the center of gravity," he said, meaning the focal point of political, economic and military power with which the US must cope.
"Policy and strategy toward East Asia," he said, "are not easy to discern."
Stephen Bosworth, a former US ambassador to the Philippines and South Korea, chimed in.
"The administration can't deal with more than one or two issues at a time," he said. "There just isn't enough time in a day or enough energy."
Bosworth, now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University near Boston, added: "The inattention of Washington may not be reversible in a couple of years because it is so absorbed with Iraq, Iran and the Middle East."
Instead, he thought the US would be in a holding pattern until 2009, when a new president will take office after the election of November 2008.
Meantime, Bosworth said, the foundations of power in Asia "will have shifted while we were not paying attention. By 2009, the context will have shifted."
Kelly took that thought a step further: "Even in 2009, we don't know if the US will take a better direction."
A Chinese perspective came from Jin Canrong (金燦榮) of the People's University of China, who said his government had "rather low" expectations of the remaining years of the Bush administration.
"There is nothing we really want from Sino-US relations," he said.
Similarly, the press secretary of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Shaukat Sultan Khan, said: "One cannot expect miracles in the last two years" of Bush's term of office.
He expressed concern that Bush would use force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms, a conflict that would spill into Pakistan.
A senior member of Vietnam's National Assembly, Ton Nu Thi Ninh, applauded veterans of both the US and Vietnam for leading a reconciliation between her nation and the US.
Even so, she said, "Vietnam is low in US priorities; Vietnam has no illusions about that."
To encourage candor, none of the 34 political leaders, government officials, diplomats, military officers, academics, think tank people, business executives or journalists at the seminar could normally be quoted. Kelly, whose home is in Honolulu, and Bosworth, however, gave permission to be quoted. Jin, Khan and Ninh spoke at a public luncheon later.
A Southeast Asian participant suggested there was an exception to Washington's inattention to Asia, which was "an obsession with China" that reduced Washington's consideration of other issues to how they would affect relations with China.
Kelly and Bosworth agreed.