China, again

April 13, 2005

YESTERDAY, as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was sternly warning Japan that it must squarely face up to its actions in World War II, he just happened to be in New Delhi - having signed this week a historic agreement with India to peacefully resolve decades-old border disputes between the two emerging Asian powers and to dramatically boost their limited bilateral trade.

This underscores the broadest context to this newspaper's call for Washington to stop sitting so much on the sidelines while China challenges Japan's, and by implication America's, primacy in Asia.

It is worrisome that China is growing more aggressive toward Japan and Taiwan, two key U.S. allies in Asia. But it also should be of great concern that Beijing has been just as aggressive in conducting a sweeping campaign of economic diplomacy in the rest of Asia.

Beijing's apparent goal is to translate its rapidly gathering economic strength, its expanding military clout and its burgeoning trade throughout Asia into diplomatic reign over the entire region, assuming a role largely held by the United States since World War II.

This year, Beijing is organizing the first East Asian summit to formalize its leadership and further secure its long-term plans to drop all trade barriers with Southeast Asian nations, creating the world's largest free-trade zone, with more than 2 billion people.

Down the road, throw India into that free-trade pact and it would embrace more than half the world's people and could grow to challenge the dominant economic power of the European community and the Americas.

In this, in sharp contrast to the formerly strong U.S. leadership role in Asia, America may be reduced to the status of just an observer - perhaps watching as its longtime allies Japan, South Korea and even Australia succumb enough diplomatically to Beijing to be allowed to climb aboard the Chinese-led free-trade bandwagon.

In New Delhi this week, as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mr. Wen basked in their breakthrough agreement, Mr. Singh declared: "India and China can together reshape the world order." Asia's order indeed is rapidly being reshaped away from the United States and toward China, a geopolitical game of vast long-term importance - at which Washington is being outmaneuvered.

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