China’s charm offensive

EVERY insider knows that the key to power in Washington is being at the meeting. It’s an ancient political rule: if you’re not at the meeting, no one will protect your interests and your agenda. Well, there’s going to be a big meeting in Asia next week, and for the first time at such a high-level governmental conclave, the United States will not be present.

By Fareed Zakaria

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Published: Wed 7 Dec 2005, 10:01 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 6:50 PM

The East Asia Summit, being hosted in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 12, should serve as a wake-up call for Washington. While we focus our attention daily on Iraq and the Gaza Strip, the 21st century is going to be shaped in Asia. Already India and China make up 40 per cent of the world’s working-age population. In 20 years, it is likely that three of the world’s four biggest economies will be in Asia. And all three — Japan, China and India — will be at the meeting in Kuala Lumpur next week.

The full story behind the East Asian summit is also a reminder that the United States is not predestined to be marginalised in Asia. Two years ago when I travelled through Asia, the air was thick with anti-Americanism. Tensions were sky-high over Iraq, and particularly the Bush administration’s arrogance and unilateralism. In addition, the rise of China was dazzling all, making governments think about life in a Sino-centred world. Beijing thought up the East Asia Summit as a regular regional meeting and one where, with the United States absent, China would be the star.

Since then, things have changed. Iraq continues to be a source of great anger, but it has lost its urgency. "It’s so clear that we were right; most Americans now see this, so why rub it in?" says Karim Raslan, a Malaysian writer and political consultant. American aid and rescue efforts after the tsunami helped mend its image, particularly in Indonesia. But the broadest reason for the shift is that Asian countries are beginning to see China’s rise as the complex phenomenon that it is. In Japan, India and much of Southeast Asia there is still great hope that China’s growth will be an economic boon for them. But there is also a realisation that an Asia dominated by China would not be in their interests. "We want a solar system with many suns," says Raslan. That’s why, despite China’s protests, the East Asian summit will now include India, Australia and New Zealand. And last week a Chinese official left the door open for participation by the United States of America.

Asia already has many suns. After all, in real GDP, Japan’s economy is much larger than China’s. India, despite its political inertia, continues to grow at close to 8 per cent. Asian unity is a nice idea but not likely to be much more than that. The more Asians think about it, the less they want any one country to be their leader. Nor has any Asian country shown the ability to do this. Japan’s troubles were highlighted recently in its spectacularly unsuccessful bid for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.

Despite spending billions a year in foreign aid and being the second largest donor to the UN, Japan got almost no support in Asia for its effort. Chinese diplomacy is considerably more skilled (hence Tokyo’s failure at the U.N.). In its much-touted charm offensive of recent years, China has spent very little money and actually has not been particularly charming. Instead, it has dazzled everyone with visions of its future economic might and the opportunities this would bring.

But neither Japan nor China has any real vision of what Asia should look like, certainly not a vision other countries will buy into. Simon Tay, a Singaporean scholar, explains, "People speak of China’s ‘soft power.’ But this is a misunderstanding of the term, coined by Joseph Nye. Soft power means the appeal of one’s culture, ideas and principles. China has no soft power. No one in Asia wants the Chinese dream or pines to live in a Chinese world. Even the Chinese don’t really know what that would mean."

China has used soft power only in the sense that it has exercised its power softly. It does this consciously to show that it is not a bully, unlike guess who. And it works. America remains unpopular among the peoples of Asia, even in countries like Japan, where the government is friendly with Washington. In most Asian elections in the last two years, being pro-American was a political liability. "Many would welcome an American role. But not one that tries to be the dominant power itself or simply balances China," says Tay. "We want an honest broker. But we don’t see that, so we are searching for some kind of self-regulation at summits like this upcoming one."

There is a growing market for a long-term American role in Asia. But is there someone in Washington who knows how to make the sale?

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International. He can be reached at

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