Asia Letter: China shoring up image as Asian superpowerVIENTIANE, Laos China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, waited for only his second summit meeting of Asian leaders to tell his colleagues that they had dithered for too long. China, he said, was taking charge of planning an East Asian community, a notion that he called "an unprecedented grand endeavor."
Wen made clear, though, that this was not some warm fuzzy idea but a "long-term strategic choice made in the interests of China's own development."
In a memorable line, he added that China "will not budge an inch" to achieve the project, which would include a vast trading bloc of two billion people encompassing Japan, Korea and the Southeast Asian nations, with China, from the Beijing point of view, as the fulcrum.
What is going on here? It's not too complicated.
In the long term, Wen was putting everyone on notice that China was moving along to create the new brash competitor to the United States and the European Union.
In the shorter haul, the Chinese are securing their own backyard in the way the United States secured Latin and Central America in the early 19th century under the Monroe Doctrine.
They are behaving like a great power and ensuring they control the neighborhood. In this case, China is also intent on making sure that the region's commodities - oil and minerals - are locked in for China's urgent energy needs.
It should be noted that the prime minister's rather remarkable bluntness about China as the center of the East Asian firmament came on the heels of a dizzying two-week buying and investment spree by his boss, President Hu Jintao, across the American backyard: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba.
At the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations here, rather incongruously held in the poorest of the region's capitals, Wen did not explicitly say that the United States was not welcome in the East Asian community.
But that was the implicit message. His vision treats Washington as an outside power, not excluded but not part of the intrinsic Asian structures.
"The message is clear," said Wang Gungwu, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. "China's choice is not made to please anybody. It is an integral part of China's own future."
Historically, the United States has fought such proposals. "We've always opposed regional exclusiveness," said James Przystup, a research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington who was an Asia specialist at the State Department's Policy Planning Bureau when James Baker was secretary of state.
The sustained effort by Washington to keep the United States as a power, particularly a commercial power, in Asia and the Pacific harks back to the days when Washington encouraged the tottering Qing dynasty to maintain an Open Door policy that would give American business a level playing field against the Europeans.
Before World War II, the United States opposed Japan's Greater East Asia's Co-Prosperity Sphere.
In the Reagan era, Washington blocked an earlier rendition of an East Asia Community, proposed by the Malaysian leader at the time, Mahathir bin Mohamad, by inventing, along with Australia, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Bush attended that organization's annual meeting, along with Hu, in Chile last month.
As a way of showing he meant business - and was getting impatient with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' brand of low-key groupthink - Wen offered eight proposals that he said would push the East Asian community into being.
China, by the way, is not a member of the 10-nation Asean group, and officially attends the conference as a partner. But at this summit meeting China radically shifted its role from big partner to primary architect of the region's future.
At the heart of the East Asia Community, Wen said, was the establishment of an East Asia Free Trade Area, already in formation with a series of tariff negotiations between Asean and China, Asean and Japan, and Asean and South Korea. The Asean-China free trade area is slated for completion by 2010.
But the prime minister said China wanted to initiate a feasibility study of an overall East Asia Free Trade Area, and would be host to a meeting of experts in Beijing early next year.
Of equal importance, he said, were measures to deepen financial and investment cooperation in the region. China would take the lead in supporting studies on how this cooperation would work in the East Asia Community, he said.
On security issues, Wen said he wanted to see more agreement among East Asian countries on combating terror. He also outlined a series of soft proposals. For example, he said, the region needs to pool intellectual resources to come up with a "blueprint" for integration. To that end, China would be host to a convention of research institutes from the region next year to come up with recommendations.
In all, Wen's approach - direct but softly textured - was surprisingly similar to a scenario that Przystup conjured up for the Chinese some years ago. Writing in 1996 as an imaginary director at the Chinese Foreign Ministry who had been told by his superiors to come up with a China-in-Asia policy, Przystup said he wrote: "The debate in Western policy circles is whether China will be cooperative or hegemonic. But we should remember that in the Western Hemisphere these two traits go hand in hand."
Thus, continuing in his fictional role as the Chinese diplomat, Przystup recommended that China follow the American pattern:
"Ninety percent of the time, the U.S. is cooperative with its neighbors. This enhances stability and allows commerce to flourish. Everyone gets rich. But on occasion Washington takes off the gloves and acts like the true hegemon it is.
"They don't like the government in Panama, boom! They take it down and start over."
As the Chinese foreign policy planner, Przystup said that China should just adopt a Chinese Monroe Doctrine but relabel it as a "a new and improved Middle Kingdom Doctrine" with a modern spin and wrapped in the rhetoric of pan-Asian dialogue.
Coming back to the here and now, Przystup said Wen had handed the United States a challenge. "We've always asked for a peaceful emergence of China, and they're doing it. Now the Chinese dynamic is real in the region. What will this mean for the United States?"
Over to you, Washington.