KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Bespectacled and mild-mannered, Leong Kai Hin is every bit the professor. He teaches economics at a Kuala Lumpur university and seems most at home behind his computer grazing for statistics.
But Leong is off on a new project that, according to his assessment, says a lot about where East Asia is headed. In partnership with a mainland Chinese friend, Leong is organizing a strawberry importing business, hoping to cash in[发财] on Malaysia's hunger for juicy berries and the ability of Chinese farmers to grow them cheaply.
Leong's out-of-character leap from the classroom into competitive business, he says, is just a small example of rapidly expanding economic activity generated across East Asia by China's 9 percent annual growth. From Japan southward to Indonesia, companies and governments have come to rely on China as a market for vital exports -- from palm oil to semiconductors -- and a source for the imports that delight local business people .
With stronger economic ties between East Asian countries and China has come a rise in Beijing's political and diplomatic influence, according to a variety of sources in China and the region. Treading softly but casting a big shadow, they say, China has emerged as an active and decisive leader in East Asia, transforming economic and diplomatic relationships across an area long dominated by the United States.
The shift in status, increasingly clear over the past year, has changed the way Chinese officials view their country's international role as well as the way other Asians look to Beijing for cues. In many ways, China has started to act like a traditional big power, tending to its regional interests and pulling smaller neighbors along in its wake[紧跟在...的后面].
The new Chinese role has been evident recently in international efforts to deal with North Korea's declared nuclear arsenal[兵工厂]. When Kim Jong Il's government declared Feb. 10 that it was suspending participation in Chinese-sponsored six-nation nuclear talks, the question that arose immediately in Asian capitals and beyond was: What will China do about it?
Japan, whose economy surpasses China's by a large margin, in some ways has been the Asian country most uncomfortable with China's rising stature. The oil sources and sea lanes increasingly seen as vital by China and its traders have long been viewed the same way by Japan. In that light, Japan's government has tightened strategic cooperation with the United States, and in December, it issued a 10-year defense program that identified China as a potential threat.
Chinese officials and foreign policy specialists emphasized in interviews that they had no intention of challenging the U.S. role as Asia's main military power, a fact of life here since World War II. U.S. power was on vivid display in East Asia after the Dec. 26 tsunami in southern Asia, with a U.S. carrier group dispatching helicopters to deliver food and medicine to hard-hit Indonesian towns while China's navy was nowhere[到处都没有;毫不顶用] on the horizon.
But with 1.3 billion people, 3.7 million square miles of territory and a $1.4 trillion economy, China is the rising regional leader in other fields. This view has come into focus particularly over the last year, when U.S. diplomacy has seemed preoccupied with Iraq or anti-terrorism and China increasingly has asserted its pre-eminence[卓越].
"There is now this feeling that we have to consult the Chinese," said Abdul Razak Baginda of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center. He added, "We have to accept some degree of Chinese leadership, particularly in light of the lack of leadership elsewhere."
From Outsiders to Insiders
China's leadership has become visible in small but telling ways. Premier Wen Jiabao was clearly the star, for instance, at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit conference in Laos in November. Lower-ranking ASEAN diplomats have begun to turn to Chinese colleagues for guidance during international meetings, according to a senior foreign diplomat with long experience at such Asian gatherings.
"I was struck by how naturally, even at the working level, the other Asians looked to China and how naturally China played that role," the diplomat said, noting that only a few years ago, Chinese diplomats were viewed as outsiders.
The change also comes across in bigger and more formal ways. In particular, China has taken the lead in organizing an East Asian summit conference for next November that, according to Chinese and other observers, will formalize Chinese regional leadership in several aspects.
A senior Chinese diplomat said it had not been decided whether the United States will be invited to attend and, if so, in what capacity. That the question of U.S. participation is even on the table dramatizes the shift in Asia's diplomatic landscape.
As envisioned by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the summit deliberately frames participation on a country-by-country basis, dispersing ASEAN's combined weight and enhancing China's role as first among equals. "It's very subtle, but it could be very important," the senior Chinese Foreign Ministry official said.
The ASEAN countries -- Brunei[文莱], Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- increasingly have begun to deal with China individually rather than as a bloc[集团]. As a result, an association that began with U.S. encouragement in 1967 in large measure to fend off Communist Chinese influence has evolved into a forum through which China exercises its regional leadership.
Other examples of Chinese leadership include the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security forum comprising China, Russia and four former Soviet republics along China's northwest borders. As a part of this grouping, China's formerly standoffish[冷淡的] military recently held anti-terrorism exercises with Kazakhstan and plans exercises next fall with the Russian military.
But China's new face has been most apparent in its dealings with the ASEAN [东盟]countries, mainly because of the economic equation. At China's initiative, for instance, ASEAN countries and China in December agreed to create a free-trade zone by 2010, which would further integrate neighboring countries into China's orbit.
Trade between China and the 10 ASEAN countries has increased about 20 percent a year since 1990, and the pace has picked up in the last several years. Bilateral trade hit $78.2 billion in 2003, up 42.8 percent from the previous year. Chinese and ASEAN officials said the figure was about $100 billion and rising by the end of 2004.
"This is the locomotive that will bring growth for the Asian economies," said Leong, the professor who, in addition to his day job at a local branch of Nottingham University, advises the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia on how to make the most of the new situation.
Partly because 25 percent of its population is ethnic Chinese, Malaysia has been one of the major beneficiaries of China's growth. It exported only $1.2 billion annually in goods to China a decade ago. That figure hit $6 billion in 2003 and reached $6.4 billion in the first 10 months of 2004, according to the Chinese and Malaysian governments.
"It all depends on your mindset," said Callum Chen, a Malaysian businessman whose company markets its underwear in 30 stores around Beijing and Shanghai. "The rise of China can be threatening. Or it can be an opportunity."
China's foreign relations establishment has long adhered to an adage[谚语] offered by the late Deng Xiaoping: "Never be a leader." In deference to that concern, Foreign Ministry officials recoil[退却] when the word leadership is used to describe what they are doing. Nonetheless, as the country's economic strength has grown, so has the confidence of its foreign policy and a recognition that the United States is no longer the only country on which others in Asia rely for leadership.
"China has sensed that there is an emerging transition of power in East Asia between China and the United States," said Shi Yinghong, who heads the People's University Center for American Studies in Beijing. Outside Asia, China's most immediate foreign relations concern has become an appetite for oil and other raw materials needed to sustain the economic boom. Tao Wenzhao, a senior researcher at the American Studies Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China had been carrying out "commercial diplomacy" far and wide.
In recent years, China has contracted in a range of distant countries for oil supplies, from Sudan and Angola in Africa to Indonesia and even Canada. President Hu Jintao's recent trip to Latin America dramatized the country's new interest in that part of the world, traditionally a U.S. domain, including plans for $20 billion worth of business in Argentina.
In the first 11 months of 2004, China invested $889 million in Latin America, according to the Commerce Ministry, as part of the government's "go out" strategy to guarantee raw material imports. On return from a recent trip to Beijing, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela said that in coming years, Chinese firms would invest nearly $350 million to extract oil from eastern Venezuelan fields and another $60 million in natural gas wells.
Although strictly business now, a senior European diplomat noted, these commitments herald[先驱;vt预示] future Chinese diplomatic and security interests beyond Asia. Buying oil in Africa or Latin America, he explained, implies a concern for stability and friendship in the source countries and for security in sea lanes leading back to China. In one small sign of this evolution, the Foreign Ministry recently set up a department to monitor the safety of Chinese working abroad.
By expanding its activity abroad, China inevitably has bumped against existing international relationships. Japan, with its extensive economic relationships around the region, so far has most keenly felt this aspect of China's rising influence. But Japan has never been in a position to exercise the regional leadership that China has assumed.
Although teenagers across Asia follow Japanese fads[时尚] and read Japanese comics, its cultural power has been no match for China's, which is exported through language ties, entrenched overseas communities and traditional philosophies. In addition, Japan's role as a ruthless military occupier during World War II created a legacy that still haunts the region.
During the days of war and Japanese dominance, for instance, allied forces fought to prevent Tokyo from constructing a railroad from southern China through Vietnam, Laos and down to Singapore as a conduit[管道] for oil supplies. Now, Tao remarked, China has announced plans to build just such a railway.