KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Bespectacled and mild-mannered, Leong Kai Hin is every bit the professor. He teaches economics at a Kuala Lumpur university and seems most at home behind his computer grazing for statistics.
But Leong is off on a new project that, according to his assessment, says a lot about where East Asia is headed. In partnership with a mainland Chinese friend, Leong is organizing a strawberry importing business, hoping to cash in on Malaysia's hunger for juicy berries and the ability of Chinese farmers to grow them cheaply.
Leong's out-of-character leap from the classroom into competitive business, he says, is just a small example of rapidly expanding economic activity generated across East Asia by China's 9 percent annual growth. From Japan southward to Indonesia, companies and governments have come to rely on China as a market for vital exports -- from palm oil to semiconductors -- and a source for the imports that delight local business people .
With stronger economic ties between East Asian countries and China has come a rise in Beijing's political and diplomatic influence, according to a variety of sources in China and the region. Treading softly but casting a big shadow, they say, China has emerged as an active and decisive leader in East Asia, transforming economic and diplomatic relationships across an area long dominated by the United States.
The shift in status, increasingly clear over the past year, has changed the way Chinese officials view their country's international role as well as the way other Asians look to Beijing for cues. In many ways, China has started to act like a traditional big power, tending to its regional interests and pulling smaller neighbors along in its wake.
The new Chinese role has been evident recently in international efforts to deal with North Korea's declared nuclear arsenal. When Kim Jong Il's government declared Feb. 10 that it was suspending participation in Chinese-sponsored six-nation nuclear talks, the question that arose immediately in Asian capitals and beyond was: What will China do about it?
Japan, whose economy surpasses China's by a large margin, in some ways has been the Asian country most uncomfortable with China's rising stature. The oil sources and sea lanes increasingly seen as vital by China and its traders have long been viewed the same way by Japan. In that light, Japan's government has tightened strategic cooperation with the United States, and in December, it issued a 10-year defense program that identified China as a potential threat.
Chinese officials and foreign policy specialists emphasized in interviews that they had no intention of challenging the U.S. role as Asia's main military power, a fact of life here since World War II. U.S. power was on vivid display in East Asia after the Dec. 26 tsunami in southern Asia, with a U.S. carrier group dispatching helicopters to deliver food and medicine to hard-hit Indonesian towns while China's navy was nowhere on the horizon.
But with 1.3 billion people, 3.7 million square miles of territory and a $1.4 trillion economy, China is the rising regional leader in other fields. This view has come into focus particularly over the last year, when U.S. diplomacy has seemed preoccupied with Iraq or anti-terrorism and China increasingly has asserted its pre-eminence.
"There is now this feeling that we have to consult the Chinese," said Abdul Razak Baginda of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center. He added, "We have to accept some degree of Chinese leadership, particularly in light of the lack of leadership elsewhere."
From Outsiders to Insiders
China's leadership has become visible in small but telling ways. Premier Wen Jiabao was clearly the star, for instance, at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit conference in Laos in November. Lower-ranking ASEAN diplomats have begun to turn to Chinese colleagues for guidance during international meetings, according to a senior foreign diplomat with long experience at such Asian gatherings.
"I was struck by how naturally, even at the working level, the other Asians looked to China and how naturally China played that role," the diplomat said, noting that only a few years ago, Chinese diplomats were viewed as outsiders.
The change also comes across in bigger and more formal ways. In particular, China has taken the lead in organizing an East Asian summit conference for next November that, according to Chinese and other observers, will formalize Chinese regional leadership in several aspects.
A senior Chinese diplomat said it had not been decided whether the United States will be invited to attend and, if so, in what capacity. That the question of U.S. participation is even on the table dramatizes the shift in Asia's diplomatic landscape.