In the ebb and flow of a very old struggle for strategic
influence and clout in Asia, China for now is gaining an upper hand
over longtime rival Japan, whose dynamism in the 1980s and early
1990s made it the undisputed regional power broker - from Korea to
Singapore and Thailand.
A host of economic and diplomatic moves by Beijing in and around
Asia has begun to deepen China's strategic position in this region,
say well-placed US officials, including former Bush administration
Wednesday, for example, a powerhouse team of Chinese leaders -
headed by Standing Committee member Wu Bangguo and rising foreign
ministry star Wang Yi - begins a visit to Pyongyang to arrange the
timing and agenda of the next round of six-party talks over North
Korea's nuclear ambition. Mostly through the urging of the Bush
administration, Beijing has seized leadership on what is often
called North Asia's most dangerous security problem.
Moreover, China has a host of Asian initiatives and economic
deals on the table, from an offer to begin free-trade agreements
with ASEAN nations, to reenergizing its influence in central Asia
through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to its splashy
profile at the APEC summit in Bangkok, where President Bush and
Chinese President Hu Jintao both received state-visit honors.
By contrast, Tokyo, which still arguably has the greatest
investment and clout in Asia, at times seems on the wane, caught
flat-footed and preoccupied with internal business.
"China is trying to take what it feels is its rightful place as
the main power of Asia," says a former Bush administration official
specializing in Asia. "But Japan will fight back; it is not in the
US or Japan's interest to concede Asia to China, at least not yet."
The rise of China has been talked about for more than a decade,
often prematurely and often too extravagantly. China, while a
permanent member of the UN Security Council, is not yet viewed as
having the practical track record to be counted on as a reliable
player in the mainstream international-cooperation game, many
experts say privately.
Asia is notoriously riven by disputes and distrust; the region
has never constructed the kind of postwar system of interlocking
mechanisms of trade, security, and cooperation found, for example,
in Europe. "Even if Beijing miraculously settles the North Korean
issue," an Asian specialist at a US government think tank in Hawaii,
says with some skepticism, "are you really going to leave the future
of Korea to the Chinese? Is anyone ready for that?"
Yet China's role in Asia is changing: A little-noticed
fundamental switch is under way in China's foreign policy, dating to
last year's significant 16th Party Congress, when Beijing quietly
announced it was turning its foreign priorities upside down. Since
the early 1970s, under Chairman Mao, China had placed top priority
on befriending revolutionary movements inside the developing world;
during the 16th Congress, it reordered
its priorities. No. 1 would be a focus on improving ties with
Asian neighbors. No. 2 would be the developed world. No. 3 would be
the developing world.
A whirl of activity
At last week's APEC meeting in Bangkok, for example, a vigorous
and fresh-faced new Chinese president, Hu Jintao, was busy
coordinating responses to a North Korea missile test as the leader
of six-party talks, prepping for a show-stealing visit to Australia,
where the Chinese leader signed a $17 billion equity share in an
Australian liquid-gas development project, and accepting
congratulations from heads of state for China's successful manned
space launch, the first Asian nation to put a human in orbit. …