China's Banner Year Felt Abroad ; Economic Dynamism and Other Recent Successes Are Expanding China's Influence, Particularly in Asia

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After a roller coaster year of SARS, new leadership, 9 percent growth, and the first Chinese astronaut in orbit, there is a slightly weary tone in Beijing as the country settles into a much desired Chinese spring holiday kicking off the new "Year of the Monkey."

Yet for Beijing the old "Year of the Sheep" was a banner year for Chinese diplomacy and strategy. It has been marked by a steady expansion in Asia and abroad not only of economic clout, but of something akin to "soft power" - a concept often associated with the US superpower's influence, due to its size, culture, and other nonmilitary verities.

Take the unprecedented reception granted this week in Paris to China's top leader, Hu Jintao. The Eiffel tower is lit a flaming red at night, and the famed Champs-Elysees was the site of a 54-float China parade led by the longest dragon in the world. It was the first time the French have given over their two best known venues to honor another single state.

The blowout French "Year of China" probably has two main motives, experts say: It acknowledges China's potential as a center of international trade, and the European interest in good ties with Beijing. And during a year of French frustration with the US and its Iraq foray, "making nice" with China also tweaks the often ambiguous US-China ties.

But it is not just the French that are currently ga-ga over things Chinese. Much of the corridor talk at the Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland this week focused on China's global economic dynamics - its currency valuation, cheap labor, $50 billion in foreign investment, possible overheating, and purchase of Treasury bonds as a stabilizer of US deficit spending.

"The soft power attractiveness of China cannot help but change the world, especially in Asia," says Edward Friedman, a China specialist at the University of Wisconsin. He points out that China has grown since the late '70s at 7 percent or higher, so that "by 2004 China was the buzz word at the Davos Forum. Even more is China the focus of concern and envy in Asia."

Indeed, Beijing has made the clearest strides in its own Asian backyard with a foreign policy it calls "more confidence, greater cooperation." Whether to assert its ancient role as the center of gravity in Asia, or to create greater "stability" on its borders, or to counter fear of a nascent US "containment" strategy of China, Beijing has moved adroitly on nearly every part of the Asian chessboard to improve relations. The resulting pro-China "buzz" is particularly strong in Southeast Asia where China has long been a competitor with Japan. China's next moves on the testy areas of North Korea and Taiwan are unknown.

One of China's most successful moments came last fall at the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok. Hu Jintao's message of Asian solidarity and Chinese investment in the region was seen as upstaging both the Japanese head of state, and the American president's message of antiterror. …

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