5: How Does China Play Its Hand?

Beijing is trying, subtly, to stem the tide of U.S. political influence

Imagine China's chagrin. Just months ago, it was one of the few nations willing to tangle with Uncle Sam. Remember Beijing's huffing over U.S. military help to Taiwan? Or how it went ballistic over the spy plane incident and took its sweet time giving America its plane back--in pieces? All along, China was strengthening military ties with Burma, cozying up to longtime rival Vietnam, forging ties with Russia and the Central Asian "Stans."

Then came September 11. Now, thanks to its swift dispatch of the Taliban, the U.S. walks taller than ever. In fact, its military has set up shop in China's backyard. "Before the terrorist attacks, China frequently criticized hegemonic tendencies," says Zhu Feng, director of the International Security Program at Beijing University's School of International Studies. "Now the world is becoming more hegemonic." If China's leaders feared containment before, they probably feel surrounded now.

So Beijing has launched a charm offensive. Jiang & Co. are working hard to portray China as a constructive, nonthreatening new power (table). Says Kenneth Lieberthal, former Asia national security adviser in the Clinton Administration: "China has been trying to create a very important role for itself." One of Beijing's key goals: to undermine U.S. influence before it becomes a fait accompli.

Consider Zhu Rongji's five-day trip to India--a Chinese premier's first visit in more than a decade. He was there ostensibly to forge closer ties. But he also sought to counter Washington's growing friendship with New Delhi. China also aims to profit from Japan's weakness. In a November trip to Southeast Asia, Zhu called for an Asian free-trade zone. With luck, Southeast Asia will look more to China as the region's center of economic gravity. China also wants to show a benevolent side by arbitrating regional disputes and contributing money and equipment to peacekeeping operations, as it has already done in Cambodia, East Timor, and Bosnia.

Still, many Asian nations would prefer the U.S. Navy to Chinese gunboats patrolling shipping lanes. And both Japan and Taiwan have expressed interest in U.S. plans for regional missile defense. These nations know that China, while playing nice, can play mean later. China "is a big power, and it will project itself like [one]," says an Asian diplomat in Beijing. "We all have to live with that." Of course. But it won't always be easy.

By Dexter Roberts in Beijing, with Brian Bremner in Tokyo

— With assistance by Brian Bremner

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