China`s role in Southeast Asia questioned

China is finding the once friendly ground of Southeast Asia bumpy going, with anger against Chinese claims to disputed islands.

Beijing: China is finding the once friendly ground of Southeast Asia bumpy going, with anger against Chinese claims to disputed islands, once reliable ally Myanmar flirting with democracy and renewed American attention to the region.

The changing terrain for Beijing was on view this past week at a conclave of East Asian nations in Cambodia. Wen Jiabao, China`s lame duck premier who usually exudes a mild, grandfatherly air, got into a sharp exchange over the contested South China Sea islands.

The leaders of the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam reacted furiously when host Cambodia suggested that all sides agreed not to bring outside parties into the dispute a reference to the US.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama, buoyed by the first visit ever by a US President to Myanmar, projected an image of a confident, friendly America, calling for a reduction in tensions and seemingly taking no sides.

Beijing is struggling to find its feet as its own power grows, but the US refuses to cede influence in the region, emboldening other countries not to fall in with the Chinese line.

"The robust US presence and relatively disciplined and quiet diplomacy looked strong relative to China`s heavy-handed pressure," Ernest Bower, the chair for Southeast Asian studies at the Council for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, wrote in a yesterday commentary.

It`s a reversal over the treatment Beijing enjoyed much of the past decade as it wooed Southeast Asia with soaring trade and investment and the lure of the huge Chinese market.

Looking to further those links, Wen held discussions on expanding a free trade agreement to increase China`s imports from Southeast Asia.

China`s economic "pull remains, but the smile has faded”, said Aaron Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.

Getting Southeast Asian diplomacy right matters to Beijing. It`s an area where China historically exercised great sway. The 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian nations, or ASEAN, are home to a market of 600 million people and straddle vital shipping lanes and seas rich in fish, oil, gas and other minerals.

Beijing`s influence began foundering in 2010 when its more assertive claims to islands in the South China Sea touched off anxieties among the Philippines and Vietnam, who along with Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also claim the islands in whole or in part.