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The latest symbol of China's relentless drive for global superpower status will be unveiled on a street in downtown Vancouver this fall.

It has a harmless-sounding name: the Confucius Institute. But it represents a dramatic change in China's overseas strategy. Under the guidance of President Hu Jintao, who arrived in Ottawa yesterday, China is shifting to a charm offensive to expand its global influence.

The Confucius Institute, which opens this fall on the Seymour Street campus of the B.C. Institute of Technology, is just one of a far-reaching network of 100 such institutes to be created around the world over the next five years to promote the Chinese language and culture.

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Beijing has already opened 27 branches of the Confucius Institute around the world in less than a year, and it has a budget of $200-million (U.S.) annually to teach Chinese to foreigners.

But the new Chinese campaign goes beyond the economic and political spheres. Chinese pop culture, including television and music, is spreading rapidly throughout Asia. Also, about 78,000 foreign students, largely from Asian countries, are enrolled at Chinese universities.

"China is starting to develop a public diplomacy strategy, and it includes not just diplomatic finesse but also public relations and the export of Chinese culture and values," said Yuen Pau Woo, president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. "It's what you would expect of a rising power. It's the soft architecture of being a global player."

Despite their neutral scholarly appearance, the new network of Confucius Institutes does have a political agenda, observers say.

The institutes will teach Beijing's preferred version of Chinese, with simplified Chinese characters, rather than the traditional Chinese characters that are used in Taiwan. That would help to advance Beijing's goal of marginalizing Taiwan in the battle for global influence.

Language and culture are just one element of a multi-pronged campaign to spread Chinese influence worldwide. Mr. Hu, who launched a 10-day tour of North America yesterday, has spearheaded an aggressive new Chinese foreign policy that has been remarkably successful in strengthening China's "soft power" in international relations.

With chequebook in hand and trade deals on offer, Mr. Hu has jetted around the world for the past two years, cultivating new partnerships in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and southern Asia -- even in isolated states such as Iran and Sudan that are shunned by the United States.

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His enticements to these countries are often lucrative: investment projects for their oil fields, access to the Chinese market for their commodities, military aid, pipelines, road projects, economic assistance and political support for their isolated regimes.

No longer an impoverished aid recipient, China has transformed its image into that of a benevolent aid donor. When hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the Chinese government promptly offered $5-million (U.S.) in aid to the United States. It donated $85-million to the victims of the Asian tsunami disaster, giving it a newfound influence in southeastern Asia.

China will try to solidify that influence at a controversial East Asia Summit to be held in December in Malaysia. The summit, from which the United States is specifically excluded, is widely seen as a Chinese-dominated effort to create an Asian equivalent of the European Union: a new community that would act as a counterweight to U.S. power.

China is also pushing a series of free-trade agreements with other Asian countries, and has offered to lead a feasibility study of a proposed East Asia Free Trade Area.

China has already scored an early success in a similar regional alliance: the Shanghai Co-operation Organization, which includes China, Russia, and four former Soviet republics in Central Asia. The alliance shocked Washington by demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from their bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

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