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Monday, Oct. 6, 2003
China girds for wider influence in Asia
By FRANK CHING
HONG KONG -- China's efforts to defuse the North Korean nuclear crisis have been trumpeted in headlines around the world, but it has been just as active in other parts of the region, a reflection of its increasing regional influence.
Just last month, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao hosted a Beijing meeting of the heads of government of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO. This six-nation grouping, which also includes Russia, Kazakstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, agreed to establish a regional antiterrorism center in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent and signed a pact to strengthen economic cooperation with the goal of creating a free trade zone.
Meanwhile, China is also strengthening its relationship with its neighbors in Southeast Asia. It has decided to sign the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Treaty of Amity and Cooperation during the ASEAN summit in Bali this week. China will be the first major country outside of the regional grouping to sign the treaty, which sets down fundamental principles for relations between countries, including mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and renunciation of the use of force against each other.
China will also meet with Japan and South Korea on the sidelines of the Bali meeting; it is expected that the three nations will issue a joint declaration on improving their economic relationship.
The SCO formed months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. with the primary aim of countering terrorism, separatism and extremism in the region. The antiterrorism center to be set up in Tashkent was originally planned for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The reason for the shift may well be a desire on the part of both China and Russia to limit American influence in the region.
Uzbekistan agreed to host U.S. troops engaged in overthrowing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and since then, ties between Uzbekistan and the United States have been improving. Russia appears to be taking an additional step to check American influence by establishing a military base at Kant Airport near Bishkek, the Kyrgyzstan capital, its first military base in Central Asia since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The base would be only 30 km from where U.S.-led coalition forces are stationed.
While the U.S., China and Russia are all committed to combating terrorism and, in fact, are cooperating in that effort, Russia and China are also concerned about increasing American influence in Central Asia, which they see as their backyard.
Since the SCO was largely China's creation, it is not surprising that the Chinese are making every effort to make it a success. In August, China for the first time took part in multinational military exercises when it joined SCO countries in holding exercises focused on combating terrorists and separatists in Xinjiang. The organization is still very much a work in progress. The hope is that by early next year both its headquarters in Beijing and the antiterrorism center in Tashkent will be up and running.
Interestingly, China appears intent on widening its influence through both antiterrorism and trade efforts. It has already reached agreement on creating a free trade area with the 10-member ASEAN, and last week Wen, the Chinese prime minister, proposed that SCO, too, establish its own free trade area. At the end of the meeting, Wen declared its "biggest result" the fact that "SCO economic cooperation has now launched onto the main track."
A few weeks ago another senior Chinese leader, Wu Bangguo, head of China's legislature, while visiting the Philippines, reached an agreement under which China and the Philippines would explore ways of antiterrorism cooperation between ASEAN and the SCO. This would help cement China's relationship with both regional blocs and place Beijing in a strategic pivotal position between both groupings.
China's newfound international assertiveness stems from its desire to play a role commensurate with its growing economic strength. A recent article on the People's Daily Web site stated this clearly: "It is far from enough for a 'big, responsible country' merely to get its own affairs well done. It should also take an active part in international affairs" and "undertake its international obligations."
The article concluded: "China is advancing step by step toward a 'big responsible country' worthy of its name.' "
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.