The Empire Strikes Back

After George W. Bush greets visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao on the White House South Lawn this week, they'll sit down to discuss many things--trade cooperation and energy needs among them. But one thing they probably won't talk about is the end of the Sino-U.S. post-9/11 honeymoon. Four years ago, American and Chinese officials joined hands in the war against terrorism, and Beijing stood by stoically as American GIs and air bases proliferated in Central Asia. But now, even as both sides profess that the bilateral relationship is healthier than ever, Beijing is pushing back against American influence in Asia, both political and military. "The U.S. used the excuse of counterterrorism to get into Central Asia, and then it tried to lead the entire region," says Gao Heng, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing who is familiar with official thinking. "But now it's high time for the Americans to leave."

Beijing is asserting itself chiefly by using multilateral alliances, one of which is the somewhat obscure Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The esoteric grouping was formed in June 2001 by China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan--though, as its name suggests, China runs the show. At the time, Washington pooh-poohed the SCO as an acronym searching for an agenda. By the end of that year, a U.S.-led coalition had toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan and stationed troops at the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, as well as Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad air base, nicknamed K2. Tajikistan had offered U.S. and NATO aircraft overflight rights.

But since then, as a short-term goal turned into a longer-term U.S. presence, "both China and Russia--especially Russia--felt they'd been taken in," says Gao. At the same time, U.S. support for what the Chinese call the "colored revolutions"--the Rose in Georgia and Orange in Ukraine, and later street protests that toppled the authoritarian president of Kyrgyzstan and challenged Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov--raised hackles in both Moscow and Beijing. In July, Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in the Kremlin and issued a joint statement that railed against any nation's outside interference in another nation's internal affairs--a thinly disguised criticism of the United States.

Just days later, the Hu-Putin line prevailed at an SCO summit that requested an explicit timetable for the withdrawal of U.S.-led Coalition forces from Central Asia. U.S. Gen. Richard Myers said he sensed "two very large countries trying to bully some smaller ones." But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was worried enough to hop a plane for Central Asia. There he persuaded the Kyrgyz president to backtrack and agree to allow the U.S. troops to stay. In late July, Uzbek strongman Karimov, on the other hand, ordered the Americans out of K2 within six months. That demand was reinforced by a unanimous vote in the Uzbek Parliament last week. If Karimov hangs tough, the Pentagon's eviction from K2 will be its worst setback in the area since the Afghan war began.

Beijing's newest gambit is an effort to limit U.S. influence in East Asia proper. China is one of the driving forces behind the inaugural East Asian Summit (EAS), slated to be held in Kuala Lumpur in December. Sixteen of the region's major players (including Japan, India, Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) will be represented--but the United States won't take part in the conclave, whose first goal is to form an integrated regional trading bloc called the East Asian community, loosely modeled after the European Union. "China made clear it didn't want the U.S. invited, and it discouraged Japan's efforts to let Washington in as an observer," says an Asian diplomat familiar with the talks, who requested anonymity in order to speak more freely. "Despite some reservations, we all went along with Beijing." Beijing's future plans are even bolder: state-run media say government officials want the EAS to discuss political and military cooperation as well.

Slated to become an annual event, the EAS isn't going to keep Uncle Sam out of East Asia. The U.S. Seventh Fleet will remain the dominant military power in the Pacific for some time. What's more, five of the EAS members are formal treaty allies of the United States. At worst, the United States could be "frozen out of economic policy integration mechanisms," as Asia analyst and author Greg Sheridan puts it. For the record, Chinese specialists blandly deny the U.S. exclusion is any big deal. "If the U.S. holds a regional meeting in Latin America and China isn't invited, it would be normal," says Tsinghua University foreign-policy expert Liu Jiangyong. "The U.S. shouldn't be too sensitive about it." Easy enough to say, but Washington and Beijing are likely to engage in a subtle struggle for regional influence for years to come.