China's banner year felt abroad

Economic dynamism and other recent successes are expanding China's influence, particularly in Asia.

After a roller coaster year of SARS, new leadership, 9 percent growth, and the first Chinese astronaut in orbit, there is a slightly weary tone in Beijing as the country settles into a much desired Chinese spring holiday kicking off the new "Year of the Monkey."

Yet for Beijing the old "Year of the Sheep" was a banner year for Chinese diplomacy and strategy. It has been marked by a steady expansion in Asia and abroad not only of economic clout, but of something akin to "soft power" - a concept often associated with the US superpower's influence, due to its size, culture, and other nonmilitary verities.

Take the unprecedented reception granted this week in Paris to China's top leader, Hu Jintao. The Eiffel tower is lit a flaming red at night, and the famed Champs-Elysees was the site of a 54-float China parade led by the longest dragon in the world. It was the first time the French have given over their two best known venues to honor another single state.

The blowout French "Year of China" probably has two main motives, experts say: It acknowledges China's potential as a center of international trade, and the European interest in good ties with Beijing. And during a year of French frustration with the US and its Iraq foray, "making nice" with China also tweaks the often ambiguous US-China ties.

But it is not just the French that are currently ga-ga over things Chinese. Much of the corridor talk at the Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland this week focused on China's global economic dynamics - its currency valuation, cheap labor, $50 billion in foreign investment, possible overheating, and purchase of Treasury bonds as a stabilizer of US deficit spending.

"The soft power attractiveness of China cannot help but change the world, especially in Asia," says Edward Friedman, a China specialist at the University of Wisconsin. He points out that China has grown since the late '70s at 7 percent or higher, so that "by 2004 China was the buzz word at the Davos Forum. Even more is China the focus of concern and envy in Asia."

Indeed, Beijing has made the clearest strides in its own Asian backyard with a foreign policy it calls "more confidence, greater cooperation." Whether to assert its ancient role as the center of gravity in Asia, or to create greater "stability" on its borders, or to counter fear of a nascent US "containment" strategy of China, Beijing has moved adroitly on nearly every part of the Asian chessboard to improve relations. The resulting pro-China "buzz" is particularly strong in Southeast Asia where China has long been a competitor with Japan. China's next moves on the testy areas of North Korea and Taiwan are unknown.

One of China's most successful moments came last fall at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok. Hu Jintao's message of Asian solidarity and Chinese investment in the region was seen as upstaging both the Japanese head of state, and the American president's message of antiterror.

China's promise of continued investment in Southeast Asian nations takes some of the sting out of the region's loss of jobs from Chinese competition. How long this tributary appeasement will last is an open question. Still, Beijing's call for a free-market zone in Asia by 2010 caught the Japanese so off-guard that they immediately held their first ASEAN minisummit early in December in Tokyo to create their own new bilateral free-trade ties.

Soft power as applied to China does not imply exactly what it does in the American case. The term originated in the waning years of the cold war to describe how Western films, celebrities, clothing styles, and other popular culture influenced the opinions and aspirations of people around the world. In the case of China, soft power tends to suggest more a respect of or fascination with China's recent success - and an accrual of clout as a result.

With the exception of authoritarian or communist states like Burma or Vietnam, however, few experts feel Asian states are trying to emulate Beijing. And China is not yet regarded as a dynamo of popular commercial styles. Beijing doesn't export boy bands, for example.

Chinese leaders currently seek to meld China's national identity and its ancient traditions with its hierarchical authoritarian political structure and economic successes as a way to create pride and legitimacy, experts point out.

"The [Communist] regime in Beijing is legitimized, in part, by foreigners looking to China for lessons about the future. This trend should continue for the foreseeable future," argues Mr. Friedman.

Yet as a diplomatic "soft power" in Asia, the past year also recorded China's joint Coast Guard exercises with India, something inconceivable five years ago. Beijing took a central role on the Korean nuclear crisis, even referring to the "six-party talks" as the "Beijing process." It has just finished a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - designed to keep its influence percolating in Central Asia.

The exercise of soft power was evident when Korean President Roh Moo Hyun visited Beijing last year. Mr. Roh, whose small state represents the world's 11th largest economy, brought with him a vision of South Korea as the future "hub" of Asia trade and culture, a vision Roh gets great affirmation for at home. Yet in Beijing, Roh was politely heard out, then found himself treated to a different vision. "The Chinese basically said, 'So you are the hub? Excuse us, we are the Middle Kingdom,'" said a source close to the meeting.

"China is being a very reasonable power in Asia as a short and midterm strategy," says one analyst at a politically unaffiliated Asian think tank. "What happens in 10 or 20 years, if China dominates the region, I don't know. The best you can say is, 'the jury is out.'"

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