China's growing influence in Asia
was on display during a series of regional gatherings this month. From the summit
of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bali to the Asia-Pacific Economic
Cooperation forum meetings in Bangkok, China has received top billing in regional
October gatherings. Chinese leaders were feted to elegant dinners, courted by
business groups and basked in high profile media attention.
Beijing has been on a charm offensive in recent years, especially in Southeast
Asia, where it still has outstanding territorial disputes. So says Stapleton
Roy, a former U.S. ambassador to China.
"China has been very successful, in my view, in the last few years in trying
to overcome some of its former frictions in the region and establish a pattern
for more effective cooperation with countries of Southeast Asia," said Mr.
It has been difficult for China's neighbors not to warm up to the communist
giant, which is in transition to a free market and a full-fledged member of
the World Trade Organization. China has used its huge market to entice Southeast
Asian nations with offers of trade arrangements.
China and the 10 Southeast member-nations agreed last year to form the largest
free trade zone in the world by 2015. As conflict is bad for trade, they also
signed a non-aggression pact in their annual summit earlier this month.
Mark Beeson, professor of international politics at the University of Queensland
in Australia, said Chinese foreign policy appears to have matured. "I think
China's integration with the WTO, into some of the emerging regional groupings
like ASEAN plus 3 is having the effect of kind of socializing them in behaving
in particular sort of ways," said Professor Beeson. "It's also increasing confidence
among China's neighbors in China's behavior as well. And I think as a consequence
China's now seen as much less of a threat and even a force for regional stability."
In the interest of regional stability, China this year has taken a very public
and active diplomatic role in looking for a way to peacefully get North Korea
to give up its nuclear weapons program.
Some experts say Beijing's improving relations with its neighbors could potentially
sideline traditional U.S. influence in the region.
Harry Harding, a dean at the George Washington University in Washington,
DC, said a rising China may clash with a "status quo" superpower like the United
States. "What is absolutely fascinating is to see China beginning to champion
a number of aspects of international relations in international organizations
in this region that the United States used to champion [and] the Chinese use
to suspect," he said.
"If you look at Chinese statements on international affairs, especially on
Asia, we see it talk about multilateralism, cooperative security, institution
building," he continued. "China's rhetorical position is one that I think resonates
now a lot better with certain lines of thinking in Asia than does the American
With the United States preoccupied with the international war on terrorism,
some analysts say China is seizing the opportunity to elevate its political
Ambassador Roy said China's emerging position poses a challenge to U.S. foreign
policy makers. "U.S. foreign policy clearly has to take this into account," said
Mr. Roy. "We [the United States] are no longer the big outside power that is
most relevant to the region. We are one of the big outside powers, a very important
one, but not one that can simply decide whether or not we would come and engage
in a particular way," he continued. "There are alternatives that are emerging
in the region now."
China's emerging leadership in the region comes amid improving Sino-US relations,
which U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently described to be at their
warmest since President Nixon's historic trip to China in 1972.
China's government is focusing on sustained economic growth and military
modernization to cement its power in the region and in the world. China is
also on an international public relations drive to highlight its accomplishments
like the recent manned space flight and winning the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Many analysts say China has a long way to go before it could completely surpass
U.S. superpower dominance in the region, economically and militarily. But,
they say, the real question is when can they do it and can they sustain it?