Fri, Oct 10, 2003 - Page 5 News List

China snuggles up to South-Asian neighbors

STRIKING STYLE Prime Minister Wen Jiabao charmed and reassured his colleagues at the ASEAN summit with a dazzling display of affability and economic agreeability

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NUSA DUA, INDONESIA

In his first major outing with his Asian colleagues, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) of China this week unfurled what has clearly become a basic tenet of Beijing's foreign policy: friendly, even superfriendly, relations with the neighbors.

That Wen's presence drove much of what was accomplished at this year's ASEAN summit meeting, is without doubt. What was striking was the style and manner in which he brought it about.

Again and again, Wen sought to reassure his colleagues that China's fast growth and expanding trade meant only the best for the region. He signed a menu of agreements, proposed a variety of people-to-people exchanges and offered a special expo in China next year for Southeast Asian businesses.

From China's point of view the display of affability was intended not only for the regional audience but for the wider listening gallery, particularly the one in Washington.

"He wants to show the West: `See we're trusted in our own neighborhood,'" an Asian diplomat said at a signing ceremony on Wednesday, which featured China and the 10 ASEAN countries.

Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) is to meet with US President George W. Bush in 10 days at the APEC summit conference in Bangkok and Wen is scheduled to make his first visit to Washington in early December.

The Chinese prime minister exercised what was commonly referred to here in Bali as his "charm offensive." He had the field to himself.

Though the US has been the dominant power in the region since World War II, it is not a member of the ASEAN regional group and unlike Japan, South Korea, India and China, is not a participant in the discussions.

There were only a handful of American business people at a business summit that accompanied the meeting of the leaders, and there were no American diplomats observing the proceedings.

After Japan, the US remains the biggest investor in Southeast Asia but in the past several years American investment has declined. Further, Washington is perceived as being consumed by its agenda revolving around the campaign against terror and problems in the Middle East.

"I have never seen a time when Southeast Asia is in so much transition and open to ideas, and never seen a time when the US is so distracted from the region," said Ernest Bower, the president of the US-ASEAN business council that represents big American corporations in the region.

In contrast, he said, "China is focused on the region like a laser beam."

Wen's "charm offensive" in Bali is part of what some Asian diplomats are calling China's decision to take a "strategic pause" abroad while it focuses on rapid domestic growth and modernization.

To achieve that growth with the minimum of disruption, the Chinese leadership is intent, these diplomats say, on securing smooth relations with the rest of the world, including its own back yard.

Last year China dropped its militant stand on a dispute over islands in the South China Sea. Instead, it was opting, "for the time being," said the Chinese ambassador to Indonesia, Lu Shumin, for a "cooperative" solution.

Many nations in the region are rich in the natural resources that China needs to fuel its economic growth.

It is no accident that the Chinese leader, Hu, is addressing the Australian parliament in Canberra on Oct. 24, the day after Bush, who will end his upcoming Asian trip in the Australian capital. Australia recently won a sizable contract to sell liquid natural gas to China and Australia sells China large quantities of iron ore and alumina.

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