States flock to Beijing's dance
GREG TORODE in Bangkok
It may once have been a slow waltz in the shadows, but diplomacy between China and its neighbours across the Mekong region is moving at a friskier tempo.
Envoys from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma and even former enemy Vietnam say bilateral ties with their giant neighbour to the north have never been as strong as in recent months.
Observers say the wooing of Beijing is starting to bring rewards but could yet prove divisive.
The new ties are paying off as China defensively re-aligns its strategic partnerships in the wake of the Belgrade embassy bombing, yet at the same time seeks to dilute US and Japanese economic and political influence. Significantly, it also is diluting the power of Southeast Asia.
'From every angle, we see China with new clout and influence one-to-one across the region. It is a player at all levels whereas once it was a cold outsider to be treated with the utmost suspicion,' a European envoy said.
Increased diplomacy is being matched by increased trade, investment and, in some cases, aid flows. Defence ties are also growing, with some analysts believing that China and Japan are competing to forge a future security pact with the region.
Both Burma and Laos are being eyed as trade gateways for land-locked Yunnan province, while new ties with Cambodian Premier Hun Sen stand to weaken his long friendship with Vietnam.
China has been using the friendship to try to scupper a potentially embarrassing trial of Khmer Rouge leaders.
Last week, Thailand played host to an unprecedented delegation of Chinese 'strategic thinkers' headed by Yang Yan Li, counsellor of the Asian Affairs Department, who did little to mask China's desire to get even closer to the region.
'They made clear US and China ties are stagnating,' one senior Thai official involved in the closed-door sessions said. 'They want to pull us even closer. They constantly stress they don't want to be seen as a possible aggressor any more.' President Jiang Zemin is due to visit Bangkok in September.
Thailand has been at the core of the Chinese regional efforts, with Beijing contributing US$1 billion (HK$7.75 billion) to its International Monetary Fund bailout nearly two years ago - an unprecedented act for a communist country. The Chinese Embassy is also funding cultural developments across Chinatown.
Some diplomats believe the Thai relationship hints at the success of the policy in weakening the recently expanded Association of the South East Asian Nations - a union that had been seen increasingly as anti-Chinese.
Four years ago the grouping stood strong in the face of Chinese incursions into Philippines waters on the edge of the disputed Spratly Islands group.
Over the past year, as China returned to intensify building on Mischief Reef, Manila has struggled to raise the same level of concern - even from fellow claimant Vietnam.
Vietnam only restored links with China in 1991 after a freeze following the brief but bloody border war of 1979. Now Vietnamese officials privately describe China as their most important partner militarily, politically and culturally.
The ruling communist parties of both states are actively swapping notes at all levels on how best to stay in power despite reform.