Thu, Jul 08, 2004 - Page 8 News List

China's 'Asia co-prosperity sphere'

By Sushil Seth

The US preoccupation with Iraq and global terrorism has given China an ideal opportunity to expand its role. In Southeast Asia it has forged a free-trade agreement with ASEAN. It has also signed a "Strategic Partnership" agreement with the regional organization. Although the partnership is supposedly "non-aligned, non-military and non-exclusive," it has a wide scope to cover almost anything and everything. For instance, it calls for cooperation in "politics, economy, social affairs, security and regional affairs."

On the surface, China's regional diplomacy is not directed against the US. Indeed, according to Vice Premier Qian Qichen (錢其琛), a foreign affairs veteran, "We welcome a positive role of the US in the Asia-Pacific region for regional peace and development." But, in effect, Beijing is working on a two-pronged approach.

First, by enlarging its political and economic space in the region through multilateral forums, Beijing will make it increasingly difficult for Washington to enlist regional support against China in the future.

Second, by virtue of its membership and or cooperation in the regional forums, it would have assured itself a seat in the conduct of regional affairs. And because of its political and economic weight, it will have a leading, if not determining, role.

In the longer run, China has a larger ambition of forging and leading an East Asian community. As a Chinese diplomat has put it, "China sees its integration with Southeast Asia as part of the East Asia pact." He added: "If you look at the world today, you see Europe with its integration having grown for many years now. And you look at North America and NAFTA. Look at Southeast Asia, we still lack this."

Beijing, though, makes it sound like it is doing it for Asia's common good. But the real objective is to establish China's pre-eminence. Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅), blurted it out some time ago when he told China Daily that regional economic cooperation "will serve as a helpful trial and practice of China's new security concept featuring comprehensive, common and cooperative security."

Interestingly, there is a regional audience for the new Chinese initiative for regional integration. Mari Pangestu, an Indonesian economist has put it this way: "The growth of China led to a growing realization that the region could form a large and dynamic economic bloc ? and seek a more effective voice in the global arena hitherto dominated by Western interests."

China's charm diplomacy continues to reinforce this sense. Speaking at an Asian forum last year, Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) said that China "should opt for dialogue in resolving disputes, step up cooperation in maintaining security, and bring about lasting peace and stability in Asia through the establishment of a new international political and economic order that is fair and rational." You can't be more reasonable than this.

Whatever China's own agenda, this kind of charm offensive appears a welcome contrast in the region to the US policy of making terrorism the litmus test of all international relationships. China is, therefore, emerging as a benign power. As a Thai defense analyst has said, "China seems to become more and more of an attractive option," especially when it is increasingly projected as an economic powerhouse.

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