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China Exerts Unprecedented Influence in Asian Diplomacy - 2004-09-27


China is exerting unprecedented influence in Asian diplomacy in the past few years - in what experts say appears to be an effort to counter American dominance in the post-Cold War, anti-terrorism era.

China's deepening relations with its Asian neighbors is just one example of how Beijing has officially ended centuries of insulation to seek a place on the stage of international power politics.

And many neighbors are courting Asia's largest economy.

As recently as September, visiting Philippine President Gloria Arroyo signed expanded defense and economic agreements with China - despite outstanding territorial disputes over small islands in the South China Sea.

Some analysts say Philippine-Chinese military cooperation is another sign of Chinese efforts to mitigate traditional United States dominance in the region - even with a close U.S. ally such as Manila.

Since 2003, Beijing has acted as the main broker in international efforts to resolve conflict over North Korea's nuclear weapons development. It has also forged closer economic and security relations with Southeast Asian nations, setting aside thorny territorial disputes.

Niklas Swanstrom, a visiting professor at China's Foreign Affairs University, says Beijing's main motive is to ensure continued economic prosperity. China is extremely interested in stability," he says. "If you get a conflict in Southeast Asia, it will disrupt economic development because interdependence in economies is so large."

To achieve this, China's foreign policy has made a marked shift toward a more open and multilateral approach after the end of the Cold War.

In the mid-1990's, China began to engage in multilateral organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN. It also initiated the Boao Asian leaders forum and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with Russia and neighboring Central Asian republics in 2001.

Beijing's diplomatic participation apparently helped ease Asian concerns of a rising aggressive Chinese superpower.

Richard Baum is director of the Chinese Studies Center at the University of California in Los Angeles. "By the early 2000s, I think China has been regarded as part of answer not part of the problem. To be sure, China as an economic powerhouse is going to cause problems to East Asian economies down the road, but in terms of diplomacy and its image as a cooperative power the Chinese have been very successful," he says.

Chinese goodwill has been also aimed at isolating Taiwan - over which it claims sovereignty. Over the past few years, some smaller Pacific island-nations have been persuaded by Beijing to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Analysts say Beijing has successfully used trade and economic rewards to push its policy on Taiwan and other concerns. And as such, China would inevitably compete with the United States for influence in the region - despite quite solid Sino-American relations at the moment.

Experts say it has been fairly easy for China recently, as Washington has focused on other fronts such as Iraq and Afghanistan - battlegrounds in the war against terrorism.

In addition, some analysts, like Danny Paau of Hong Kong Baptist University, suggests that Asian nations welcomed China's challenge to what they perceive as U.S. unilateralism and sometimes, superpower arrogance. "Thanks to America, China learned that it has to appear as humble, benevolent power. And that's what it exactly tries to do with its Asian neighbors," he says.

Still the question looms, will China continue it benevolent diplomacy once it consolidates its economic and political goals in Asia?

Professor Baum says China's future behavior is difficult to predict. "China right now is like the proverbial 200 pound gorilla. It's young. It's gaining strength. The real concern is what happens when it becomes a full-grown 800 pound gorilla," he says. "Would it be a good citizen or would it start eating other people's bananas?"

Some experts emphasize that China remains a developing nation, despite its growing international economic and political clout. Its uneven development has left widespread poverty and a growing income gap between the rich and poor. If not handled efficiently and adequately, China could be destabilized and derailed as an international power. Moreover, the Communist Party continues to refuse greater democracy and freedom to its citizens - one of the key factors common to the world's leading industrialized nations.

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