On paper it's Cambodia's summit. In reality it will be Barack Obama's summit.

The United States was admitted to the East Asia Summit only last year, six years after the first summit.

But Obama has no intention of easing himself into the organisation like an ordinary newcomer. He will arrive invigorated by his re-election and looking forward to another four years.

China, the great competing power in the region, will send Premier Wen Jiabao who retires in March after 10 years in the job. Obama wants to see the East Asia Summit as a forum where political, security and strategic dialogue can be added to the list of issues leaders discuss as well as the less contentious issues such as a disaster relief, energy, climate change, and health. That might sound like code for China and the maritime territorial disputes it has with many of its neighbours.


But with US messaging, there is no need for code. Obama will raise it himself to press home how instability in the region would jeopardise economic growth.

That risks opening up the tensions that saw an almighty row in Phnom Penh in July when Cambodia, a great friend of China, refused to agree to a joint communique by Asean foreign ministers because it noted some belligerency by China over its disputes. The temperature on the issue has been lowered through the diplomacy of Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa who is trying to get all parties signed up to a code of conduct on how to handle their disputes.

Obama will also arrive secure in the knowledge that the US has close friends around the table, not least John Key and New Zealand.

Obama's administration has paid special attention to relationships in the area to "rebalance" its strategic priorities to the Asia Pacific region. It already has well-established security alliances with Japan, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia; it has close relationships with Singapore, South Korea, and India and a relationship with NZ that is deepening every week.

And having just visited Burma, he may well arrive with one more friend.