Beijing's conception of the early 21st-century world order can be encapsulated by four Chinese characters: yichao duoqiang, or 'one superpower, many strong powers'. This means that in the foreseeable future - perhaps lasting until around 2020 - the United States will be the pre-eminent power, with 'strong powers' such as China, Japan, Russia and the European Union trying to catch up, with various degrees of success. While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership's long-term goal is to become at least a quasi-superpower, its diplomatic objective in the near term is to jockey for advantage by playing a convoluted yet fascinating game with the 'superpower' and the 'strong powers'. Masterminding Beijing's multi-pronged foreign policy is President Jiang Zemin. The head of the CCP's Leading Group on Foreign Affairs is convinced that, while Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping made history by respectively ushering in the new China and pursuing market reforms, his contribution to the annals would be to bolster China's global clout. Particularly since his two presidential summits with US counterpart Bill Clinton, the CCP chief's performance in diplomacy has been as forward-looking and colourful as his track record in domestic policy is conservative and lacklustre. The Chinese President's just-ended trip to Russia, while marred by President Boris Yeltsin's hospitalisation, illustrates well Beijing's creative diplomacy vis-a-vis the US and Russia. Much of the hidden agenda of Mr Jiang's sixth summit with Mr Yeltsin is the US. To some extent, the Chinese supremo has stuck to late patriarch Deng's largely 'pro-US' policy; during the two summits with Mr Clinton, Mr Jiang in effect agreed to acquiesce at least temporarily in many aspects of America's 'superpower status' in return for continued access to the American market - and for Washington toning down its support for Taiwan. Yet the CCP General Secretary is at the same time trying to rein in US 'hegemonism' by waging some form of an anti-US containment policy. For instance, Chinese and Russian diplomats see eye to eye on the Iraqi issue; presidents Jiang and Yeltsin are opposed to Washington using strong-armed tactics to 'teach Baghdad a lesson'. According to an Asian diplomat, Beijing is not unhappy to see Saddam Hussein 'standing up to the Yankees': by some Chinese estimates, Iraq ties down up to one-sixth of US global military resources and installations. Then there are the arms deals that the Chinese and Russians were negotiating in the run-up to the Jiang-Yeltsin summit. They include top-of-the-line hardware such as Su30 fighters and Kilo-class submarines. It is another way of telling Washington that China is not dependent on American technology. Not surprisingly, Beijing is more comfortable dealing with 'strong powers' that do not have a serious or direct conflict of interest with China. Such powers include major European Union countries - and also Russia. Full Sino-Russian detente was confirmed by the presidents' joint statement on Monday, which heralded the end of disputes along their 4,300-kilometre border. A mainland source said that, apart from military and trade co-operation, both parties agreed to use Chinese labour and capital to develop Siberia, which would play a crucial role in cementing the two countries' 'strategic partnership for the 21st century'. Japan, however, is a more problematic 'strong power': it presents as much of a challenge as an opportunity to China. During Mr Jiang's trip to Japan, which begins today, China's diplomat-in-chief will be using the Maoist - and Dengist - 'both fists be tough' tactics to the hilt. First, Beijing needs Tokyo's yen loans and technological help. To persuade Tokyo to do something about Japanese businesses pulling out of the mainland and Hong Kong, Mr Jiang is willing to dangle a number of blandishments. The inducements include a larger chunk of the China market for Japanese products; possible backing of Japan beocming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council; and postponement of the settlement of the sovereignty issue over the Diaoyu islands. More impressive, however, is the array of weapons which Beijing has deployed to ensure that, as Chinese diplomats put it, 'while Japan is an economic power, it should never become a political or diplomatic power'. At least in the eyes of the Japanese public, Beijing seems intent on driving a wedge between Tokyo and Washington. This was symbolised by Mr Jiang's stopover in Hawaii on his way to the White House summit last October: at a war memorial in Honolulu, the Chinese leader recalled co-operation between the Chinese and American forces in the 1930s and 1940s. Moreover, Tokyo looks with suspicion on the 'constructive, strategic partnership' that China recently forged with the US. After all, it is most unlikely that such a relationship will be proclaimed after the summit between Mr Jiang and Japanese counterpart Keizo Obuchi tomorrow. Some Japanese politicians are also convinced that Beijing is wielding the 'World War II card' not just to extract economic concessions out of Japan, but also to fan anti-Japanese feelings among nations including South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Beijing's successful playing of this 'card' will make it more difficult for Tokyo to pursue a role in defence and diplomacy that is commensurate with its status as the world's second-largest economy. By and large, the Jiang team is satisfied that its aggressive, multi-faceted diplomacy has worked well with the US, Russia and Japan. However, some dark clouds loom on the horizon, particularly in relation to Japan. Mr Clinton's trip to Tokyo last week seemed to have consolidated the US-Japan security arrangement, one of whose motives, Beijing is convinced, is to thwart Beijing's reunification game plan. And on the eve of the Jiang-Obuchi summit, Japanese officials were giving strong hints that Tokyo would not come out with a strong statement condemning 'Taiwan independence'. Moreover, Tokyo has taken other moves to counter Beijing's gambits. Mr Obuchi's trip to Moscow earlier this month was partly conceived to steal some of the thunder from Mr Jiang's Russian venture. The Obuchi-Yeltsin talks produced significant agreements on economic co-operation and the eventual solution of sovereignty squabbles over what Tokyo calls the four northern Japanese islands. In the final analysis, Beijing has to be on guard against what pundits call the flip side of the dialectic coin. Apart from quick thinking by strategists including Mr Jiang and Vice-Premier Qian Qichen, Beijing's resourceful, even dashing, foreign policy has been made possible by a fast rise of the country's economic and military prowess. Blatant flexing of China's muscle in fields including diplomacy, defence, energy, finance and trade, however, may give ammunition to its rivals and critics to play up the 'China threat' syndrome. Given the lack of transparency in much of China's party, government and military establishments, the 'Yellow Peril' bogey still finds receptive ears among politicians and parliamentarians in countries ranging from the Philippines and Malaysia to Japan and the US. And it may lend credence to arguments that favour using Taiwan and other modus operandi to sustain an anti-China containment policy.