- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2000

BANGKOK China is working with high-profile diplomacy and quiet financial aid to boost its presence in Southeast Asia at a time when Washington's influence in the region may be waning.

In the past year, Beijing has made several well-publicized attempts to improve ties with Southeast Asia. China invited Thailand's Queen Sirikit to Beijing, where she spoke warmly of the Communist leadership and even played a piano duet with President Jiang Zemin.

Between Nov. 11 and 14, Mr. Jiang toured Laos and Cambodia, becoming the first Chinese leader to visit Phnom Penh in 37 years.

For many years, Cambodian leader Hun Sen detested China, which backed the Khmer Rouge against him during Cambodia's civil war. But Mr. Jiang was received warmly by the leadership in Phnom Penh, where he was met by 200,000 cheering schoolchildren.

Behind the overt diplomacy, China also has increased its economic and military assistance to the region.

When the Asian financial crisis wreaked havoc on Thailand in 1997, Beijing lent Bangkok more than $1 billion. China has promised $200 million in aid to Cambodia this year.

China has become one of Burma's main suppliers of weaponry. Over the past decade, Beijing has sold Burma at least $1 billion worth of arms, diplomatic sources said.

At a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last month, Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji suggested that it might be advisable for China and ASEAN countries to explore the establishment of a free-trade relationship.

A potential free-trade bloc "is a good opportunity for us to enhance our cooperation," he said.

Beijing has important reasons for strengthening its role in Southeast Asia.

The ASEAN nations comprise a nearby, massive market of roughly 500 million people, more than 35 million of whom migrated from China and potentially could participate in a two-way trading relationship.

China, a net importer of oil, will need petroleum from Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei as its economy expands.

China also may see Southeast Asia as one of the only regions where it can effectively challenge American hegemony, said Sunai Phasuk, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

Several Southeast Asian leaders have expressed dissatisfaction with U.S. policy in the region.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed has castigated the United States for verbally supporting pro-democracy movements in Malaysia, and Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid has said his country needs to strengthen its ties with China, possibly at the expense of the United States.

Several Indonesian leaders have accused U.S. Ambassador Robert Gelbard, known for his aggressive style, of interfering in domestic politics, and anti-American protests have been frequent in the last month at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.

While the United States pushes for reform in Southeast Asia as a prerequisite for closer ties, Chinese leaders adopt a hands-off stance, which is welcomed by some of the less-free ASEAN states, said one China analyst based in Bangkok.

But not everyone in the region is pleased to see China boost its presence.

"I think China wants to take over Asia," Philippine President Joseph Estrada warned in a recent interview. His country has clashed with China over a group of disputed islands in the South China Sea.

During Mr. Jiang's visit to Phnom Penh, a group of students holding banners reading "Cambodia is not a Chinese province" called on Beijing to apologize for supporting the Khmer Rouge and decried Cambodia's new links with China.

Several days before Mr. Jiang's trip to Cambodia and Laos, Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh visited Laos to announce a new partnership between India and ASEAN, a move widely seen as an attempt to counter Chinese influence.

In the past six months, several Southeast Asian leaders have expressed dismay that foreign investors are shunning ASEAN for China. They have emphasized that U.S. investment remains crucial to the region.

Foreign investment inflows into ASEAN countries amounted to $16.9 billion last year, down from $19.6 billion in 1998, while investment into China reached $40 billion in 1999. In the early 1990s, ASEAN got 61 percent of investment flowing into Asia, compared to only 18 percent for China.

A potential China-ASEAN free-trade zone "is not an attempt to shut out Washington from Asia," Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said at the ASEAN meeting.

"We need the United States to be in East Asia," he said.

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