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China's Economic Power Brings Growing Diplomatic Clout - 2004-10-06


As China's economic power expands around the world, it also has been carrying out a diplomatic offensive that experts say has presented the nation as a major power other countries want to work with.

It is no secret that China has grown as an international economic powerhouse, but one area that has received less attention is Beijing's efforts to step up its political and diplomatic influence around the world.

China's global diplomacy campaign includes taking a lead role in six-nation talks aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis and actively engaging with several regional multilateral organizations.

Randall Schriver, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Asia, says China's efforts with North Korea are just one reason his assessment of current U.S.-China relations is basically positive.

"I think the bilateral relationship continues to be pretty good. And it's characterized by good cooperation on a number of things that are of great importance to the United States, things like the nuclear challenge on the Korean peninsula, worldwide efforts against terrorism, cooperation in the United Nations, and such," he said. "But there's still a lot of challenges and problems and tensions in the relationship, as well. And, I think, first among those would be differences over Taiwan. We also have concerns over human rights and religious freedoms."

One reason the United States welcomes China's help with North Korea is because of Washington's intense involvement with other international issues, such as Iraq. Stephen Linton heads the Eugene Bell Foundation, a private U.S. charity that aids North Korea.

"The United States has essentially ceded the North Korean issue to China, and China is doing what it can to resolve the issue in a way that is, perhaps reluctantly, satisfactory to the United States, but is also in its [China's] own interests," he said.

Victor Cha, professor of international relations at Georgetown University, agrees that China is using the talks on North Korea to enhance its own diplomatic clout.

"We should not be under any illusions that China is in this for the good of mankind," he said. "They clearly want to capitalize on this issue to the extent that it enhances their own influence in the region."

The region also includes Southeast Asia, home to the 10-member grouping known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which has worked closely with the United States for many years. Beijing became one of ASEAN's so-called "dialogue partners" in 1996, and has consciously worked to reduce member nations' fears about China.

Part of this effort includes signing an agreement aimed at defusing longstanding territorial disputes over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and negotiating a free trade agreement with ASEAN countries.

Bob Broadfoot is the director of Hong Kong's Political and Economic Risk Consultancy. He says Southeast Asian countries used to view China with suspicion, but now feel that a strong China may be good for the region.

"Five years ago, there was a great deal of attention on China as a threat," he said. "And now, it just seems to be shifting 180 degrees, to where everyone is really focusing on it as an opportunity."

Mr. Broadfoot says China needs raw materials from Southeast Asia to supply its manufacturing and construction boom, which means many Southeast Asian countries have seen exports to China surge.

Another key issue is Beijing's relationship with Moscow. On the surface, China and Russia have good relations. September marked the 55th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

But a more pessimistic assessment is given by Vassily Mikhaiyev, Moscow Carnegie Foundation's Asia scholar in residence. Mr. Mikhaiyev says Russia acknowledges China's economic power, but is concerned about Beijing's diplomatic efforts.

"China tries to establish dialogue with NATO including consultation with suppressing new threats, and even cooperation in the military, technology field," he said. "So, all these things can provoke some kind of political jealousy among Russian political elite."

Mr. Mikhaiyev says these same political elites also express frustration over what they see as China's growing political and economic influence in Central Asia, long a zone of traditional Russian influence. In 2001, Beijing initiated the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which brings China together with neighboring Central Asian republics and Russia.

Japanese professor Akihiro Iwashita, of Hokkaido University, says one reason China has been actively courting its Central Asian neighbors is concern about U.S. involvement with the countries on its borders.

"Consider the situation surrounding China. East, it's covered by the U.S.-Japan alliance," he said. "South, it's ASEAN. On the west, India is a former foe of China. So, in this sense, the Russian federation and Central Asia is a buffer zone. But now the United States is progressing in this vacuum."

The U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan in 2001 brought American troops to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Another area where China may compete with the United States for influence in the future is Africa, according to Washington-based Sino-African analyst Domingos Jardo Muekalia.

"China is not simply looking at today. The Chinese are good at projecting themselves 60, 100 years ahead of time. Both the U.S. and China will need to increase their influence in Africa, for oil, for political influence, for market, for space," he said. "I mean, Africa's importance in the international arena is going to increase a lot. So, they are trying to move in as fast as they can and position themselves."

Are China's efforts to increase its influence around the world a good thing or a bad thing? Richard Baum, director of the University of California at Los Angeles's Chinese Studies Center, says the answer to that question remains to be seen.

"China right now is like the proverbial 200-pound gorilla. It's young. It's gaining strength," he said. "The real concern is what happens when it becomes a full-grown 800-pound gorilla? Would it be a good citizen or world it start eating other peoples' bananas?"

A booming Chinese economy ensures that China's commercial presence will continue to spread around the world. At the same time, Beijing's diplomatic presence will also increase.