When China Speaks, Asia Listens A Recent Nuclear Test, Plans for Naval Expansion Fuel Worries over Chinese Ambitions Series: CONQUEST OVER ASIA. SECURITY-The Collapse of the Soviet Union and Closing of US Bases Mark the End of an Era; Asian Nations Vie for Position and Power. Today the Monitor Begins a Four-Part Series on the Struggle for Military Advantage, Cultural Influence, and Economic Dominance in the World's Fastest Growing Markets. Third of 4 Articles Appearing Today

Article excerpt

CHINA is both a blessing and a bogy for its Asian neighbors.

Not unlike Japan, whose economic presence in the past fueled rapid growth around Asia, China now lures other countries with its booming economy and vast virgin market. But, also like Japan, economic opportunity in China has stirred unease over the emergence of an economically and military strong giant.

"We may be enjoying the boom now," says a senior Asian diplomat in Beijing, "but in the long run, we are not without worries." Now that China has developed economically, he asks, where will it go from here? "To defend such a prosperous area, any country would have to have some teeth."

To the disquiet of its neighbors, China is already cutting its military teeth.

Ever since the Communist Party congress a year ago, which anointed China's moves toward a market economy, the military has been in the ascendancy.

On the one hand, a major military reshuffle has sidetracked hard-line Communist ideologues in the People's Liberation Army and bolstered professionally oriented officers intent on turning their once peasant Army into a technologically sophisticated fighting force.

On the other hand, military professionals have assumed a higher political profile as the ruling Communists brace for an uncertain transition following the death of ailing paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

"Military participation has grown in the last year," says a Western diplomat in Beijing. "Until we have a clear idea of who will succeed Deng Xiaoping, the military will play a key role."

For its part, the US, which has been the foremost power in Asia for more than four decades, recently ended its ban on military contacts imposed following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and decided to engage the Chinese in high level talks.

Charles Freeman, assistant secretary of defense for regional security, recently visited Beijing in what has been an ongoing effort by President Clinton to step up the level of US contacts with China and defuse sharp disputes over the sale of missiles to Pakistan and the inspection of the cargo ship Yinhe.

Mr. Freeman, who announced that the two countries will pursue talks over China's role in United Nations peacekeeping operations, is among a stream of visiting senior Clinton Administration officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights John Shattuck, Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, and trade representative Charlene Barshevsky.

Mr. Clinton's switch from confrontation to consultation will culminate in his meeting Nov. 19 with Chinese President Jiang Zemin at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Seattle.

"This is the beginning of the turnaround. This is the beginning of getting things back on track," a Western diplomat says.

"The United States and China are like Siamese twins: you are there for good or bad and always operate together," an Asian diplomat says. …