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Sunday, Dec. 30, 2001

2001 a banner year for Beijing

Special to The Japan Times

The year 2001 has been a good one for China. It won the right to host the 2008 Olympics, which should raise the country's status in the world. After 15 arduous years of negotiations, it finally joined the World Trade Organization, which will provide momentum for additional economic reforms. And despite the plane-collision incident in April, China-U.S. relations have returned to an even keel, with the Bush administration no longer terming China a strategic competitor but a partner in the war against terrorism. Indeed, the negative publicity arising from China's handling of the Falun Gong movement was one of the few discordant notes during the year.

The year also saw China assuming a more active role in foreign affairs. The late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had designed a foreign policy strategy to deal with a post-Tiananmen massacre world that was largely hostile. Deng's strategy was for China to assume a low profile. He admonished his successors "not to carry the flag" of international communism (after the demise of the Soviet Union) and "never to take the lead" in world affairs.

These ideas have guided Chinese foreign policy for most of the last decade. Recently, however, China has adopted a more assertive stance:

* At China's initiative, Beijing and Moscow signed a friendship treaty in mid-year that in some respects is similar to a military alliance;

* Again, largely at Beijing's initiative, China, Russia and four Central Asian countries -- Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- jointly created a regional security organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to facilitate development of economic relations among them and also to combat terrorism, separatism and religious extremism;

* In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., China took the unusual step of contacting by telephone other major countries, including all other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, to make known China's position on the war on terrorism; and,

* China improved its relations with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with both sides agreeing to Beijing's suggestion to set up a free trade area.

These are signs of a greater willingness on the part of China to assume responsibility in international affairs and a greater ability to discharge such responsibilities.

China has also made known its intention to act in other areas. Despite Beijing's security concerns, it has decided to simplify entry and exit procedures. By 2005, for example, Chinese citizens in large and medium-size cities who want to go abroad will be able to get a passport merely by presenting their identity cards and household registration certificates to the proper authorities. Currently, a Chinese citizen must go through complicated formalities when applying for a passport. Entry and exit procedures for foreigners will also be simplified.

These decisions reflect a new sense of confidence on China's part. Perhaps for the first time in history, China sees itself playing the role of a respected and responsible member of the international community: If all goes well, a new China will emerge, different from the imperial China of the past when it considered itself the center of civilization, disdainful of the outside world. Similarly, China will have forever shed its image of being the sick man of Asia, unable to resist aggression either by Western powers or by Japan.

Such attitudinal changes take place slowly, both within China's own psyche and in foreign perceptions of China, and will entail a process lasting many years. But it is one that should be extremely positive for the world.

With Japan still stuck in the economic doldrums, China has increasingly moved to center stage. Because of China's prosperity, it is now besieged by countries near and far to buy their products, ranging from rice and bananas from Southeast Asia to airliners and insurance policies from America and Europe.

While China's military power will undoubtedly grow at the same time as the economy, China is still reticent about flexing its military muscles beyond its borders. It has been approached to take part in the international force being assembled for Afghanistan, but is not eager to participate.

Despite Deng's strictures not to "carry the flag" or to "take the lead," China today appears ready, if necessary, to take a more prominent stance than any other country on certain issues. For example, Beijing is more vocal in its opposition to Washington's decision to scrap the 1972 Antiballistic Missile treaty than Moscow, even though Beijing is not a treaty partner and Moscow is. Of course, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has pointed out, the American decision does not affect Russia's security, but from Beijing's standpoint it has the potential to seriously affect China's security.

China's view of the world in the coming year is generally positive. Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, in an yearend interview with the official Xinhua News Agency, said optimistically that "relations between big countries are turning from tension to relaxation," reflecting China's improving relations with virtually all the world's major countries. And while there will be many challenges, especially in the economic field, China believes that opportunities exceed challenges.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong.

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