Beijing charms its neighbors

David Shambaugh – The International Herald Tribune

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
SATURDAY, MAY 14, 2005
In a recent poll of Australians conducted by the Lowy Institute in Sydney, 69 percent of those surveyed had “positive feelings” towards China, while only 58 percent had such sentiment for Australia’s staunch ally, the United States.
Other surveys over recent months in South Korea and Thailand – which, together with Australia, the Philippines and Japan are the formal U.S. allies in Asia – have revealed similar shifts in perceptions. The Thai and South Korean publics clearly hold very positive images of China, while their esteem for the United States has declined.
What’s going on here? At the governmental level, all five allies profess their official allegiance to the U.S. alliance architecture that has maintained peace and stability in East Asia since at least 1975. But these polls reflect rather dramatic shifts in public opinion throughout many Asian societies in favor of China over America. The significant exceptions to this rule are Japan and Taiwan. Underlying these shifting public perceptions are three phenomena.
First, South Korea finds itself closer to Beijing’s views than to Washington’s on the handling of North Korean nuclear problem.
Second, many Southeast Asian governments are frustrated by Washington’s myopic focus on the war on terrorism in the region, to the exclusion of regional concerns.
Third, and of greater importance, is the success of China’s “charm offensive” throughout Asia.
China’s increased economic power and these changing perceptions have prompted countries along China’s periphery to readjust their relations with Beijing. As China’s influence continues to grow, many of these countries look to Beijing for regional leadership or, at a minimum, take into account China’s interests and concerns in their decision-making.
China’s new proactive regional posture is reflected in virtually all policy spheres – political, multilateral, economical and military. Politically, bilateral relations with its neighbors have never been better; many formerly antagonistic relationships (Russia, India, Vietnam, South Korea, Indonesia) are now thriving.
Multilaterally, China’s engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Central Asia reveals a key element in Beijing’s enhanced regional profile – an increased appreciation of “soft power.” Chinese media, music, food and popular culture are spreading as never before, while Chinese tourists are fanning out across the region.
Beijing’s growing appreciation of soft-power diplomacy is also evident in China’s efforts to train future generations of foreign intellectuals, technicians and political elites in its universities and technical colleges. About 80 percent of the 78,000 foreign students studying in Chinese universities last year came from other Asian nations.
China’s growing engagement with the Asian region is perhaps most evident in the economic domain. According to official Chinese customs statistics, trade between China and the rest of Asia topped $495 billion in 2003, up 36.5 percent from 2002. During the first eight months of 2004, China’s exports and imports continued to surge; exports to its 13 neighbors grew by an average of 42 percent, while imports surged an average of 66 percent.
Today, nearly half of China’s total trade volume is intra-regional, and, unlike China’s trade with the United States and Europe, it is relatively balanced.
In the security sphere, there is still considerable anxiety about the pace and scope of China’s military modernization program, and about as Beijing’s refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan. Yet in recent years Beijing has become much more sensitive to these regional concerns and has worked hard to assuage them. China has been able to offset concerns about its buildup against Taiwan with a series of confidence-building measures of four principal types:
Bilateral security dialogues initiated with several neighboring countries (to date with Australia, India, Japan, Mongolia and South Korea);
Military exchanges (including joint naval exercises);
Increased participation in the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), which Beijing sees as a potential catalyst for establishing a regional cooperative security community;
Increased military transparency, as demonstrated by its publication of several defense reports and invitations to observe Chinese military exercises.
Despite the significance of China’s regional rise, it is premature to conclude that the Asian regional system has come to be dominated by Beijing. This is decidedly not the case. China shares the regional stage with the United States, Japan, Asean and increasingly India. The United States remains the region’s most powerful actor, although its power and influence are neither unconstrained nor uncontested.
Still, the shifting public perceptions of China and the United States are an indication of current trends and perhaps a harbinger of things to come.
David Shambaugh is professor of political science and international affairs and director of the China Policy Program in the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University in Washington. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (

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