In the ebb and flow of a very old struggle for strategic influence and clout in Asia, China for now is gaining an upper hand over longtime rival Japan, whose dynamism in the 1980s and early 1990s made it the undisputed regional power broker - from Korea to Singapore and Thailand.
A host of economic and diplomatic moves by Beijing in and around Asia has begun to deepen China's strategic position in this region, say well-placed US officials, including former Bush administration specialists.
Wednesday, for example, a powerhouse team of Chinese leaders - headed by Standing Committee member Wu Bangguo and rising foreign ministry star Wang Yi - begins a visit to Pyongyang to arrange the timing and agenda of the next round of six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear ambition. Mostly through the urging of the Bush administration, Beijing has seized leadership on what is often called North Asia's most dangerous security problem.
Moreover, China has a host of Asian initiatives and economic deals on the table, from an offer to begin free-trade agreements with ASEAN nations, to reenergizing its influence in central Asia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to its splashy profile at the APEC summit in Bangkok, where President Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao both received state-visit honors.
By contrast, Tokyo, which still arguably has the greatest investment and clout in Asia, at times seems on the wane, caught flat-footed and preoccupied with internal business.
"China is trying to take what it feels is its rightful place as the main power of Asia," says a former Bush administration official specializing in Asia. "But Japan will fight back; it is not in the US or Japan's interest to concede Asia to China, at least not yet."
The rise of China has been talked about for more than a decade, often prematurely and often too extravagantly. China, while a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is not yet viewed as having the practical track record to be counted on as a reliable player in the mainstream international-cooperation game, many experts say privately.
Asia is notoriously riven by disputes and distrust; the region has never constructed the kind of postwar system of interlocking mechanisms of trade, security, and cooperation found, for example, in Europe. "Even if Beijing miraculously settles the North Korean issue," an Asian specialist at a US government think tank in Hawaii, says with some skepticism, "are you really going to leave the future of Korea to the Chinese? Is anyone ready for that?"
Yet China's role in Asia is changing: A little-noticed fundamental switch is under way in China's foreign policy, dating to last year's significant 16th Party Congress, when Beijing quietly announced it was turning its foreign priorities upside down. Since the early 1970s, under Chairman Mao, China had placed top priority on befriending revolutionary movements inside the developing world; during the 16th Congress, it reordered
its priorities. No. 1 would be a focus on improving ties with Asian neighbors. No. 2 would be the developed world. No. 3 would be the developing world.
At last week's APEC meeting in Bangkok, for example, a vigorous and fresh-faced new Chinese president, Hu Jintao, was busy coordinating responses to a North Korea missile test as the leader of six-party talks, prepping for a show-stealing visit to Australia, where the Chinese leader signed a $17 billion equity share in an Australian liquid-gas development project, and accepting congratulations from heads of state for China's successful manned space launch, the first Asian nation to put a human in orbit. China has been busy buying minerals, food products, and other raw materials in both North and South Asia, and seemingly caring little about tariffs.
Japanese diplomats, by contrast, appeared to spend much time in Bangkok, unsuccessfully lobbying for a resolution against North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens, an issue that plays well in Japan on the eve of next month's elections but which has lost its cachet outside Japan.
Sources says the Japanese also appeared too stringent in their trade policies - eager to push their own agricultural products but less interested in buying the products of others.
"The new Chinese leadership has the capability to send a more refined message. Hu Jintao seems more elegant, and he sells China well," says a Japanese foreign ministry official. "I'm glad China is starting to engage in the world in a greater and better behaved manner. China is catching up. But it is way too early to say they have caught up. China is a huge country, with huge problems, and their growth rates are not sustainable."
Still, the expansion of China's relations in Asia, the ongoing gravitation pull of its cheap labor, and its professed desire to become a mainstream player on the world stage, are all looked at with dismay in Tokyo.
Since the turn of the 20th century, essentially, Japan has tended to hold the chief strategic influence in Asia - first as an aggressive colonial power prior to World War II in Korea and China, and later as America's chief ally in the region and the world's No. 2 economy.
Many Americans may regard World War II as a contest between Japan and the US. Yet some Asian experts describe it as one part of an ancient struggle between the Chinese and Japanese civilizations. The issue is hardly black and white, especially since China and Japan are part of a region that is rapidly integrating economically, and whose elites are quite aware of the need for greater levels of interaction.
Many experts say that while it is too soon to decide which nation has the greatest influence, China nonetheless is now evening the balance in a very old game.
One formidable Chinese talent is simply manpower. As some Japanese executives point out, mainland Chinese students number in the thousands in colleges and vocational schools in Singapore and Malaysia - part of a strategy of developing a base of business contacts and regional acumen in the region.
On his trip to Australia, Hu Jintao and Prime Minister John Howard confirmed that some 20,000 Chinese students would attend college in Australia.
China has begun to send more students to New Zealand as well. Already, more Chinese students - over 40,000 - study in the US than any other single national grouping. Some 50,000 Chinese study in Japan.
"Japanese students are less willing to go out to Southeast Asian colleges," grumbled one Tokyo executive.
"China's heightened position is coming not so much at the US expense, as it is at Japan's expense. In the ancient tension between China and Japan, the momentum in this phase is shifting toward China," says a US diplomat specializing in Asian affairs.