With the United States preoccupied by war and nuclear threats in the Middle East and an array of problems elsewhere, a quiet revolution is underway in East Asia as the region adjusts to the reemergence of a great power: China.
The changes underway signal nothing less than the political equivalent of shifting tectonic plates that, over time, will produce a region far more integrated within itself, far more closely connected with China, and--virtually by definition--more distanced from America. Some say that the way events are headed, Beijing will eventually develop a position of dominance with the countries of Southeast Asia similar to the U.S. relationship with Latin American states--a first among equals, the nation whose voice invariably carries the day as much due to its disproportionate size as the validity of its argument.
Jin Canrong, deputy dean of Renmin University's School of International Studies in Beijing, noted one measure of the changing times. Jin recalled that when, in 1993, Malaysian leader Mohammad Mahathir first raised the idea of an East Asian Economic Caucus, Mahathir consulted with Tokyo, not Beijing. But just over a decade later when Mahathir's successor, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmed Badawi, contemplated the idea of a 16-nation summit of Asia-Pacific nations, he consulted first with Beijing, not Tokyo. "China is much more active in regional diplomacy now", Jin said.
Evidence of China's deepening involvement in the East Asia-Pacific region is just about everywhere. It's in the fast-expanding trade ties--ties that last year hit $130 billion with the ten Southeast- Asian nations and carry the prospect of continued off-the-charts export growth for the near and medium term.
It's there in the ramshackle northern suburbs of Manila and neighboring Bulacan Province where the Chinese have cleared land to build a $1.2 billion rail line connecting the capital with industrial zones hundreds of miles to the north.