North Korea may have conducted a nuclear test last week, but it was China that went a little ballistic. Beijing condemned its longtime ally, denouncing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's "flagrant and brazen" violation of global norms. Pyongyang, China declared, had "defied the universal opposition of international society."
Other nations joined the chorus of concern over North Korea's apparent entry into the nuclear club. But China remains the one country that can do more than fume and condemn. It now has the chance to wield the diplomatic influence it has carefully been amassing in recent years as it pursues a new strategy in Asia and elsewhere in the world. Call it Chinese power, 21st-century-style.
While Washington has focused on the fight against terrorism, China has quietly reoriented its foreign policy to emerge as a new advocate of "soft power" -- a combination of diplomatic outreach, cultural attractiveness and economic might that helps a nation persuade other countries to follow its lead.
North Korea is a case in point. China has lately become Pyongyang's major trading partner and source of aid. Chinese leaders have taken Kim on tours of their booming south to suggest how he might boost his backward economy, and they have trained North Korean officials in economic management. It was Beijing that helped persuade Pyongyang to come to the negotiating table for the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program.
It's all part of an international charm offensive that could threaten U.S. interests abroad, but could also -- if properly exploited by other nations -- transform the Asian giant into a more responsible member of the world community.
Beijing has embraced the concept of soft power with vigor. In recent years, it has dispatched more than 2,000 volunteer language instructors all over the world to teach Mandarin; upgraded its diplomatic corps (half of the country's 4,000 diplomats are reportedly younger than 35); boosted its foreign aid to match the United States as a donor in some countries; increased overseas investment; promoted the study of Chinese culture worldwide; and launched a frenzy of trade initiatives, developing more than 10 free-trade deals in the past five years.
China has even created its own version of the Peace Corps -- the China Association for Youth Volunteers. Like its U.S. counterpart, it sends young people to developing countries such as Burma, Ethiopia and Laos to work on long-term community-assistance projects -- and to polish China's global image in the process.
While it initially concentrated on the immediate neighborhood of Southeast Asia, China has lately expanded its soft power play into Latin America, Central Asia and Africa. Thousands of young professionals from sub-Saharan Africa now travel to China on scholarships provided by Beijing. Trade between the continent and China grew by more than 260 percent between 2001 and 2005. China offers Africa about $2.7 billion annually in loans and grants.
Beijing has also been busy planning Confucius Institutes -- Chinese language and culture schools attached to universities -- in key African nations such as Kenya, as well as countries such as Uzbekistan and the Philippines. And Chinese officials shrewdly advertise these initiatives at new summits such as the China-Africa Cooperation Forum, which was established in 2000, and the upcoming China-Africa summit next month.
The Chinese leadership's decision to go soft was a conscious one, a reaction to Western shunning after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and the failure of China's attempts in the 1990s to use its growing military force to intimidate its neighbors into choosing Beijing over Washington. And it has yielded some dazzling success.
A BBC poll last year of 22 nations found that nearly all believed that China played a more positive role in the world than the United States. Today, Southeast Asian officials compete for junkets and training in China. "We have no money, and this is the only training we can get," a top official in Laos's Foreign Ministry told me. Chinese aid funds roads and hospitals across Asia, and neighboring countries orient their commerce toward Beijing: Growing trade with China has transformed Chiang Saen, a formerly sleepy Thai village on the Mekong River. Today, container vessels arrive with crates of Chinese apples that are unloaded into trucks lined up at the town's port, while Chinese traders gather at flashy massage parlors to barter with importers.
China's newfound popularity could raise a host of problems internationally. Its emergence as a donor country may allow aid recipients to play Beijing off against organizations such as the World Bank. Just this summer, Chad moved toward evicting two oil companies, Chevron Corp. and Malaysia's Petronas, from a project backed by the bank, which had insisted that some of the oil profits be spent on improving social welfare. There's a chance that Chad may replace the oil firms with Chinese companies; at the same time that it was kicking out Chevron and Petronas, it was breaking relations with Taiwan and establishing ties with China. China's growing foreign investment could also contribute to environmental destruction, because Chinese firms have little experience with green policies at home.
Worse, as Beijing charms the world, it could persuade other developing nations to choose a Chinese growth model -- promoting gradual economic change but clamping down on any political opening. Many foreign leaders, even in democracies, undeniably want to emulate China's breakneck development. "There's great admiration for China," says Dewi Fortuna Anwar, former assistant minister for foreign affairs in Indonesia. Even the head of the African Development Bank told the World Economic Forum in January that Africa can learn from the Chinese.
But as Beijing's profile rises, its foreign policy will also come under greater scrutiny. Its leaders will have to do more to maintain the country's appeal -- and this could be the opportunity the West needs to bend China toward becoming a more responsible international power and moving away from some of its more roguish friends, such as North Korea, Iran and Venezuela.
On core issues such as regime survival or vital oil and gas fields, change is unlikely. But there has been some positive movement on other fronts. Though China once disdained treaties, it has lately proved increasingly willing to work with multilateral institutions. Its image improved significantly in Asia after it signed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the landmark agreement in the region.
Burma is another example of how China might be prodded to look beyond its narrowest interests. Burmese activists are adopting a strategy of quietly emphasizing to China that reflexive support for the regime in Rangoon will only exacerbate instability on China's borders and stir up anti-China sentiment among ordinary Burmese. They have a point. In Chinese towns near Burma, heroin junkies sleep in alleys, waiting for drug shipments from across the border. Inside Burma, domestic instability has made it easy for armed Burmese thugs to kidnap Chinese business people in the country.
And the strategy shows some signs that it's working. Chinese officials have begun cultivating relations with exiled Burmese dissidents, a step unthinkable only five years ago. At the same time, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has prodded Burma to engage with its democratic opposition, and China has allowed the U.N. Security Council to take up Burma's human rights and security crises, suggesting that Beijing might also be willing to accept tough U.N. action against North Korea.
Similarly, Chinese diplomats say that Beijing became serious about using its influence to fight disease only after the SARS and bird flu crises made the government recognize how cross-border disease could produce instability. In response, China held a donor conference on bird flu this year that raised $2 billion in pledges.
In other cases, activists and foreign governments could try to convince Beijing that soft power exercised irresponsibly will hurt Chinese companies operating abroad. If local populations see China's soft power as undermining their freedom and social welfare, top Chinese corporations will never become competitive international players. Instead, Chinese businesses will suffer the kind of guilt by association that tars American companies such as McDonald's, which can at least draw upon massive advertising budgets to combat the United States's poor global image.
Beijing desperately wants to prevent Chinese firms from facing the kind of security threats that Western companies confront, but it's beginning to happen. Though China recently promised Nigeria $4 billion in new investment, armed militants have warned Beijing to stay away from the Niger Delta, where they think oil firms are destroying the waterways and Chinese companies could contribute to environmental damage.
In other countries, such as South Africa and Zambia, workers have protested Chinese firms' labor policies. Locals had celebrated several years ago when China revitalized Zambia's decrepit Chambishi copper mine. But when 49 miners died in an accident in April 2005, their families received no compensation; the resulting anger was so great that Chambishi's Chinese managers stayed away from the workers' funerals for fear of being attacked.
In the recent Zambian election, opposition candidate Michael Sata played on this anger, accusing Chinese companies of exploiting local workers and threatening to evict the Chinese firms if he won. When Sata lost, his supporters rioted in the Zambian capital, targeting Chinese businesses.
But China's growing soft power most needs checking as Beijing begins using its leverage to meddle in other countries' domestic politics. Before Sata lost, China's ambassador to Zambia had warned that Beijing might cut off diplomatic ties to the country depending upon whom Zambians chose for president. In interviews across Asia, Africa and Latin America, activists, politicians, writers and other opinion leaders expressed to me their fears that growing Chinese influence in their countries could stifle political change, though they simultaneously hope that Beijing can use its diplomatic influence to restrain Asia's most dangerous actors, such as North Korea.
China has amassed impressive soft power -- now it has to prove that it's willing to use it wisely.
This article was originally published in the October 15, 2006 edition of The Washington Post.