The initial reaction from the Chinese leadership to the sight of packed airplanes smashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Center was shock, expressed in a letter from president Jiang Zemin to his counterpart, George W. Bush. After that subsided, it was replaced by concern that an angry United States would lash out militarily against Afghanistan and Pakistan, causing instability along China’s sensitive southwestern border.
It took only a little longer for Beijing to realize that America’s fury – and Mr. Bush’s decision to devote much of his country’s military and economic might to his project of reshaping the Middle East – presented an enormous opportunity for a budding superpower looking to take its place on the world stage.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, China was a secondary player, even in Beijing’s own backyard. When it tried to assert itself – as it did in 1996 by firing ballistic missiles over Taiwan in a ham-fisted attempt to influence presidential elections there – it was quickly forced to back down by Washington and its warships.
Ten years later, U.S. President Barack Obama – his military overstretched elsewhere, his government some $1.5-trillion in debt to Beijing, partly as a result of having to pay for the wars of the past decade – is left trying to convince Asians that his country is still willing and able to play its old role as the region’s policeman. Many now say the United States is in the process of being eclipsed by China, with its full coffers and growing military strength, as Asia’s dominant power.
The view from Beijing
“I think Sept. 11 was a tragedy for the U.S. and the whole world,” begins Yuan Peng, director of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, taking much the same line as Mr. Jiang did in his Sept. 12, 2001, letter to Mr. Bush. But then he turns to the consequences for his own country. “It made the U.S. start focusing on the Middle East rather than Asia-Pacific, which made China’s international environment less intensive than we expected, which was a good opportunity for China.”
While running for office in 2000, Mr. Bush said he saw China as a “strategic competitor” rather than a “strategic partner,” the term his predecessor Bill Clinton preferred. The more adversarial assessment was backed up by a Pentagon study Mr. Bush commissioned shortly after assuming the presidency. But after Sept. 11, he reverted to the partner language, realizing he needed Beijing’s acquiescence, if not support, for the wars he planned to launch in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Among the benefits to China: the black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us language of the day allowed the ruling Communist Party to cast its long-standing confrontation with Muslim separatists in the western province of Xinjiang as a “terrorist” problem.
“Before Sept. 11, nobody noticed there were groups of a terrorist nature in Xinjiang, like the East Turkestan Movement,” said Mr. Yuan, whose institute is seen as affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security. “[Afterwards]people in Washington gradually noticed they were part of the terrorist group, and that in China we have the same concerns as the U.S.”
The United States made several mistakes in the after of Sept. 11 that facilitated China’s rise, Mr. Yuan observes, the Iraq war first and foremost.
“From the Chinese side, I don’t see any big mistakes. We seized the opportunity to improve our economy and improve our relations with our neighbours and improve our relations with the U.S.”
The view from Tokyo
If there was a moment that crystallized Beijing’s new heft in East Asia – and the corresponding loss of influence by Washington and its allies – it was the September, 2010, showdown between Japan and China over a smattering of uninhabited islets known as the Senkaku in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese. A quarrel over the fate of a Chinese fishing captain who rammed two Japanese patrol boats in the disputed waters escalated into a test of wills. First China called the Japanese ambassador on the carpet no less than five times. Then Beijing cancelled all government-to-government contacts and told Chinese tourists to avoid visiting Japan.
As the feud entered its third week, Beijing got serious, choking off exports of a natural resource – known as rare earths – key to Japan’s high-tech industry. Unwilling to fight a trade war with its giant neighbour, Tokyo blinked and gave into demands that the fisherman be allowed to return to China without facing charges.
“The dispute over the Senkaku Islands was [a]typical example of China’s assertiveness in the region,” said Yuki Asaba, associate professor of international relations at Yamaguchi Prefectural University in Japan. “Its assertiveness hinges on ever-growing power in both absolute and relative terms over the last decade as the U.S. has been muddling through global defence posture review and military transformation in the wake of the lingering wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the financial crisis it triggered.”
China’s official Xinhua news agency last week greeted newly appointed Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda with a broadside demanding that he “respect China’s core interests” – code for Beijing's territorial claims in the region. “The new Japanese government needs to start to appreciate the undisputed fact that a deeply troubled China-Japan relationship and dire mistrust would by no means serve the interests of either side, not to mention that of the region and the world as a whole.”
The view from Manila
The Philippines is another country that has long seen itself as an American ally, a position that has come to the fore repeatedly in recent months amid an escalating quarrel with Beijing over the ownership of yet another set of disputed islands in the South China Sea.
But despite the disagreement – which President Benigno Aquino was in Beijing last week trying to cool – the Philippines has come to see Beijing in a different light in recent years. Trade between the two countries grew 52 per cent last year alone, and Manila recently signed its first-ever deal to buy military equipment from China.
“We still recognize the U.S. as the dominant military power, but we also feel the need to develop our economy and the U.S. is not in a position to help us,” said Benito Lim, professor of Chinese studies at Ateneo de Manila University. “We believe China has the resources, and we hope the U.S. will understand if we turn to China for help.”
The view from Singapore
By late 2009, the U.S. absence from East Asia was so obvious and worrying that Singapore’s senior statesman, the city-state’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, felt he had to speak out.
“The 21st century will be a contest for supremacy in the Pacific because that’s where the growth will be,” he told a gala dinner in Washington. “If you do not hold your ground in the Pacific you cannot be a world leader.”
Mr. Lee’s remarks infuriated many in China, but he was only speaking frankly to an old and often absent friend. “For Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore, the presence of the U.S. as a benign superpower is regarded as the linchpin of peace, stability and prosperity of Asia, especially East Asia,” said Eugene Tan, assistant professor of law at Singapore Management University.
Singapore can nonetheless be counted as another Asian neighbour increasingly in China’s economic sphere of influence. Bilateral trade increased nearly sevenfold between 2000 and 2010, to nearly $80-billion. In the process, China shot from being Singapore’s sixth-largest trading partner to its third-largest (after Malaysia and the European Union), passing the United States in the process.
The view from Rangoon
“We all know that the Chinese wanted the U.S. to get bogged down in the Middle East and welcomed it. This must have emboldened China to make assertive moves in East Asia,” said Khin Zaw Win, a veteran pro-democracy dissident who spent 11 years in jail for opposing military rule in Myanmar, the country better known as Burma.
For Myanmarese, the U.S. disengagement from the region after Sept. 11 meant stepped-up repression and a fading of the pro-democracy movement headed by Aung San Suu Kyi.
While political life has returned to Myanmar since Ms. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest last year (and since the country’s controversial transition to a nominally civilian government), Beijing is likely to hold more sway than Washington or other rivals over what happens next. “The influence that the Middle Kingdom now bears upon Burma is unprecedented and unchallenged,” Mr. Khin Zaw Win said.