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China's 'Peaceful Rise' Overshadowing US influence in Asia?

Wen Jiabao at the Wolrd Economic Forum (World Economic Forum/flickr)

Wen Jiabao at the Wolrd Economic Forum (World Economic Forum/flickr)

by Robert W. Radtke

Originally published by Christian Science Monitor, December 8, 2003

When the new Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, makes his first visit to the US Tuesday, the issues likely to capture headlines will be the growing US-China trade deficit, the valuation of the yuan, Taiwan, and the war on terror. But a much more important and overarching issue that should get as much attention is the new initiative in Chinese foreign policy known as "China's Peaceful Rise." The newly articulated policy has profound implications for Asia and the US because it is happening during a relative decline in America's prestige and power in Asia.

China's Peaceful Rise was introduced to Asia by Chinese President Hu Jintao on his tour of Southeast Asia in October - just on the heels of President Bush's visit to the region that month.

The contrast in tone between the two leaders couldn't have been more striking. In short, China's message was, "We're here to help," while the US message was "You're either with us or against us" in the war on terror. It's not hard to imagine which was the more effective diplomatic strategy.

China's Peaceful Rise has several policy strands. Founded on an embrace of globalization as part of the solution to China's economic growth imperatives, it relies both on China's domestic economy and the international marketplace to sustain and fuel growth. It explicitly embraces peace and eschews hegemony as China seeks to rise. And China presents that rise as part of its role in the development and stability of Asia as a whole. This is an extremely powerful message - an unprecedented Chinese engagement of its neighbors - delivered to an Asia still smarting from the economic distress of the late 1990s.

China's Peaceful Rise is designed to counter deep Asian apprehensions about China as a competitor for trade, investment, and jobs. Chinese investment in the region as a whole is increasing. Bilateral trade between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China has increased more than sixfold in the past decade. China is proposing myriad free-trade agreements throughout Asia. Australia, for example, is the recipient of China's investment largess - a $ 20 billion liquid natural-gas contract.

Mr. Wen comes to the US at a time when China is to close deals with Boeing and other important US corporations. China has set itself up as the honest broker in the talks taking place on North Korea's nuclear ambitions. These are all positive developments and should be acknowledged as such. China's leaders are quite intelligently trying to take the menace out of rapid growth. However, these developments should leave America with a sense of disquiet about its own approach to China and the rest of Asia.

What's worrying is that just as the "Peaceful Rise" is being rolled out by Beijing, the US appears to be making two mistakes. First, it appears to be engaging the region only on the issues it deems important. Second, it's ignoring China's shift in relation to the region. The consequence is that the US appears to be losing prestige and power in East Asia. Since the end of World War II, wasn't it the US that assured the development, prosperity, and stability of Asia - not China? China has laid claim to the role the US played for more than 50 years. No one in Washington seems concerned.

Because of its single-minded focus on Iraq and the war on terror, America's once broad, rich, and deeply engaged approach to Asia has become narrow and parochial. In turn, relative US influence is diminished - just as China's is growing.

The solution isn't to try to contain China or inhibit its peaceful progress. Rather, it is to reengage with Asia on the issues with which Asia is concerned - economic prosperity, political stability, and equitable development in a globalized world.

Robert W. Radtke is a vice president of the Asia Society. These are his personal views.