China Gains on Japan in Age-Old Rivalry for Asia Influence ; A Chinese Team Travels Wednesday to Pyongyang to Discuss the Next Round of Six-Party Talks on N. Korea's Nuclear Ambitions

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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 specialists.

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. …