[VIEWPOINT]Why is China taking center stage?“The presence of China” has become a familiar phrase to Japanese newspaper readers. As China has emerged as a political and economic giant, Japan is rediscovering its neighbor and studying how to respond to the changed situation.
The New York Times recently wrote that China’s share of the Asian economy was increasing. As a result of the emergence of China, The Times pointed out that the influence of the United States, which has had hegemony in Northeast Asia, was slowly but clearly diminishing. American and Japanese media alike noticed the change in the balance of power after the summit meetings at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Korea, China and Japan, known as ASEAN plus three.
In fact, among the three Northeast Asian nations, China has been most active in pursuing free trade agreements with its neighbors. Last year, Beijing officially suggested a trilateral free trade pact to Seoul and Tokyo, and is currently negotiating with the 10 ASEAN countries, aiming at a free trade agreement with the region by 2010. China has agreed with its neighbors to construct a highway that stretches from Kunming to Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Singapore by 2006. Beijing has also officially proposed to create a free trade agreement among the Shanghai Cooperation Organization members Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Beijing’s aggressive globalization doesn’t stop in the economic field. China is equally forward in creating politically friendly relations with its neighbors. China is talking with India to resolve the prolonged border dispute, and has signed a friendship treaty with ASEAN to reinforce political ties. The joint communique of Korea, China and Japan, signed by the heads of state in Bali, was initiated and concluded under Beijing’s lead. China has changed. The regional giant does not separate politics from economics any more, and is not reluctant to promote political solidarity with Korea and Japan. So what made Beijing come to the center stage of the international community, especially in Asia?
Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent trip subtly answers the question. Mr. Hu visited Australia right after U.S. President George W. Bush returned from Canberra. In time for Mr. Hu’s visit, Australia won a $21 billion contract to supply natural gas to China for 25 years. By landing the huge contract, Australia became the biggest provider of natural gas to China. Australia had already closed a deal similar in size with China last year, beating competitors Indonesia and Qatar. Since John Howard became the prime minister of Australia in 1996, trade between Australia and China has tripled in less than a decade to $16.1 billion last year. China is one of the top three trade partners of Australia, but officials in Canberra say China will be the biggest trade partner, topping Japan. Behind the economic boom in Australia stands Chinese demand. At this juncture, the last thing Canberra wants is to be forced to join an anti-Chinese group led by Washington. Australia may want to assume the position of America’s sheriff in charge of Asia, and that might be the background of inviting Mr. Hu following Mr. Bush’s visit. Lately, Beijing has ingratiated itself with Washington. Thanks to Beijing’s change of heart, Washington was able to have its Iraq resolution passed unanimously at the United Nations Security Council. At the six-nation nuclear talks, Washington seemed to depend on Beijing’s influence over Pyeongyang. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell even said the relationship between the two countries has never been better since the normalization of relations.
No country is willing to stand against the sole superpower in terms of military force. But some might feel equally insecure to tacitly follow the unilateral United States. So how will China hold itself against the United States? The best weapon China has seems to be the smiling face. As the next strategy, Beijing might be establishing a diplomatic safety net with its fast-growing economic power.
* The writer is international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Jae-hak