Big country, bigger role

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 October, 2003, 12:00am

China's efforts to defuse the North Korean nuclear crisis have been trumpeted in headlines around the world, but it has been just as active in other parts of the region, where its influence is increasing.

Just last week, Premier Wen Jiabao hosted a meeting of heads of government of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) in Beijing. The six-nation grouping, which also includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, agreed to establish a regional anti-terrorism centre, and signed a pact to strengthen economic co-operation with the goal of creating a free-trade zone.

Meanwhile, China is also strengthening its relationship with its neighbours in Southeast Asia. It has decided to sign the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Treaty of Amity and Co-operation during the Asean summit in Bali next week. No major country outside the grouping has signed the treaty, although India is also expected to endorse it in Bali.

The treaty sets down fundamental principles for relations between countries, including mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and renunciation of the use of force against each other.

Chinese officials will meet with their counterparts from Japan and South Korea on the sidelines of the Bali meeting.

If their talks are successful, the three nations may issue a joint declaration on improving their economic relationship and setting up a free-trade area.

As for the SCO, it was formed months before the September 11 terrorist attack on the US with the primary aim of countering terrorism, separatism and extremism in the region. During its heads-of-government meeting in Beijing, the SCO decided to set up its anti-terrorism centre in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. The original plan was to establish the centre in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

The reason for the shift may well be a desire on the part of both China and Russia to seek to limit American power in the region. Uzbekistan agreed to host US troops engaged in overthrowing the Taleban regime in Afghanistan and, since then, ties between Uzbekistan and the US have been improving.

Russia appears to be taking an additional step to check American influence by establishing a military base at Kant airport near Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. The base would be only 30km from where US-led coalition forces are stationed.

While the US, China and Russia are all committed to combating terrorism and, in fact, are co-operating in that effort, Russia and China are also concerned about increasing American influence in Central Asia, which they see as their backyard.

Since the SCO was largely China's creation, it is not surprising that the Chinese are making every effort to ensure its success.

In August, China for the first time took part in multinational military exercises when it joined SCO countries practising to combat terrorists and separatists in Xinjiang.

The organisation is still very much a work in progress. The hope is that by early next year, both its headquarters in Beijing and the anti-terrorism centre in Tashkent will be up and running.

China appears intent on widening its influence through both anti-terrorism and trade efforts. It has already reached agreement on creating a free-trade area with Asean and, last week, Mr Wen proposed that the SCO also establish its own free-trade area.

A few weeks ago, Wu Bangguo, head of China's legislature, visited the Philippines and reached an agreement under which China and the Philippines would explore ways to co-operate in anti-terrorism efforts with Asean and the SCO. This would help cement China's relationship with both regional blocs, and place China in a strategic, pivotal position between both groupings.

China's newfound international assertiveness stems from its desire to play a role commensurate with its growing economic strength. A recent article on the People's Daily website stated this clearly. 'It is far from enough for a 'big, responsible country' merely to get its own affairs well done,' the article said.

'It should also take an active part in international affairs' and 'undertake its international obligations'.

The article concluded: 'China is advancing step by step towards being a 'big responsible country' worthy of its name.'

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator