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China Plays Increasingly Dominant Political Role in Asia

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. Roy.

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 position."

With the United States preoccupied with the international war on terrorism, some analysts say China is seizing the opportunity to elevate its political role.

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?