- The Washington Times - Friday, January 11, 2002

China has moved in recent days to reassert its diplomatic and military clout in Central Asia in an effort to reclaim influence in the region seriously undercut by the U.S.-led war on global terrorism.

The foreign ministers of China, Russia and four Central Asian states met in Beijing on Monday, calling for a neutral Afghanistan and saying the global war on terrorism proclaimed by President Bush should not be "expanded arbitrarily."

The meeting of the six, grouped under the recently formed Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), was the first gathering of the regional countries since the September 11 attacks on the United States. The SCO was in a large part a Chinese initiative intended to address Islamic fundamentalism in the region while increasing China's influence with its neighbors to the west.

China also has tried to play a major behind-the-scenes role in the standoff between Pakistan, its traditional ally, and India, its longtime rival. China clearly wants to avoid nuclear war on its border but also has been eager to counter what it sees as a growing effort by both states to move closer to Washington.

"If you consider how the world looks to the Chinese leadership on September 10 compared to today, you'd have to say they perceive their strategic position has eroded substantially," said David M. Lampton, director of China studies at Johns Hopkins Nitze School of International Studies.

Virtually every one of China's significant neighbors many of whom are traditional rivals for influence throughout East and South Asia have moved to improve ties with the United States since September 11.

"Japan is using the crisis to enlarge its security role, Russia is moving closer to the West, India is trying to improve its relationship with Washington and so is Pakistan," said Mr. Lampton. "The ancient Chinese fear has always been encirclement by its enemies, and virtually everything that happened since September has reinforced that."

China has offered qualified support for the U.S. anti-terrorism effort to date as it deals with its own Muslim separatists seeking an independent state in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang.

China's official press last weekend for the first time detailed the scope of the challenge as it announced the arrests of 166 "violent terrorists" in Xinjiang over the last three months of 2001. Newly released government statistics revealed that Xinjiang authorities had dealt with more than 1,000 outbreaks of violence over the past decade, the first acknowledgment by the government of the scale of the resistance.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in an interview with The Washington Times on Tuesday, praised China's efforts both in the terrorism fight and in the India-Pakistan dispute.

Despite the Beijing leadership's traditional closeness to Islamabad, "they're not trying to be the spoiler" in the crisis, Mr. Powell said.

Coincidentally, Zhu Rongji arrives in India Sunday for a previously scheduled six-day visit, the first in a decade by a Chinese prime minister.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi this week tried to temper efforts by Pakistan to enlist its giant ally in the confrontation with New Delhi.

Asked about a Pakistani government statement that Beijing would support Pakistan in "all eventualities," Mr. Sun replied, "The friendly, cooperative relations between China and Pakistan are aimed at promoting bilateral ties and not against a third country."

But China yesterday gave a subtle reminder of its ability to shape the conflict. Defense officials in Pakistan revealed they had received 10 new F-7 PG fighter aircraft from China, with another 30 more to be delivered this year. Pakistani officials insisted the deal was unrelated to the military standoff with India.

Beijing's support for the global campaign against terrorism and the war in Afghanistan has been tempered by mounting unease over the massive U.S. military buildup in Central Asia and China's loss of influence in the region.

Even the six-nation SCO which includes Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in addition to China and Russia lost much of the diplomatic cachet it possessed before September 11, when many saw it as an emerging force and vehicle for China's economic and security ambitions in Central Asia.

Many of the SCO members, courted by Washington as front-line states in the war against Afghanistan, have preferred to boost bilateral ties with the United States rather than invest resources in the fledgling organization strongly favored by Beijing.

"Since the war in Afghanistan, the SCO has not played the role it intended to," Zhu Feng, director of Beijing University's international security program, told Reuters news service. It reflected official disappointment over the organization's lack of clout.

The Texas-based private intelligence service Stratfor noted that the new U.S. military alliances in the shooting war in Afghanistan have been a major setback for China's interests.

Before the war began, "Central Asia was a testing ground for Chinese and Russian cooperation and competition," according to a recent Stratfor analysis.

But the region's future "is now being shaped by Russian and U.S. involvement, with China on the sidelines."

Even China acknowledged that much work lay ahead, although the six SCO foreign ministers agreed Monday to go forward with plans to open a new regional anti-terrorism center in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek.

"The SCO still needs more work to be done to improve its internal construction," senior Foreign Ministry official Zhou Li told reporters on Wednesday. "Cooperation among members is only at the very beginning."

Mr. Lampton said domestic political concerns have been a major reason China's neighbors have proved more nimble than Beijing in shaping the post-September 11 world to their advantage.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi have been able to transform their security stance while having strong political support at home for their moves.

In China, by contrast, Mr. Jiang was already under fire at home before September 11 for being too conciliatory toward Washington, on issues ranging from the U.S. surveillance plane forced down in China last spring to the concessions Beijing accepted to join the World Trade Organization.

With China facing a transition to a new generation of leaders over the next year, there is no political figure with the clout or the political base at home to force through such a major shift in relations with the United States, Mr. Lampton said.

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