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  Wednesday  December 3  2003    12: 54 PM


While the cat is away, the mice *will* play.

With U.S. Busy, China Is Romping With Neighbors

When Citibank was casting around for a brand name speaker at its annual retreat here, the bank spurned the usual Western investors. Instead, Citibank chose the Chinese ambassador, Lu Shumin, one of a new generation of diplomats from Beijing who speak flawless English and play a mean game of golf.

The envoy's presentation was relentlessly upbeat: what Southeast Asia sells, China buys. Oil, natural gas and aluminum to build bigger bridges, taller buildings, faster railroads to serve the country's flourishing cities, like Shanghai, which is beginning to make New York City look like a small town. Palm oil for frying all that food for the swelling middle class, even eggs from faraway New Zealand on the region's southern periphery.

China's buying spree and voracious markets provide the underpinning, he said, for the peaceful coexistence that everyone wants.

Contrast this with the dour message from the United States. Congratulations, said President Bush to the Indonesians during his short stopover in October, for "hunting and finding dangerous killers." Cannily, China has wasted little time in capitalizing on the United States preoccupation with the campaign on terror to greatly expand its influence in Asia.

Bush's PR Problem

But the deeper problem is not one of style but of substance. Bush's trips to Southeast Asia and Australia focused single-mindedly on the war on terror. Karim Raslan, a Malaysian writer, explained the local reaction: "Bush came to an economic group [APEC] and talked obsessively about terror. He sees all of us through that one prism. Yes, we worry about terror, but frankly that's not the sum of our lives. We have many other problems. We're retooling our economies, we're wondering how to deal with the rise of China, we're trying to address health, social and environmental problems. Hu talked about all this; he talked about our agenda, not just his agenda."

There is a lack of empathy emanating from Washington. After the Bali bombings, which were Australia's Sept. 11, the administration did not bother to send a high-level envoy to a steadfast ally for condolences. Australians had to make do with a videotape of George Bush. Even last week, Bush could surely have arranged to meet in Baghdad with a few troops from allied countries who are also fighting and dying in Iraq.

What is most dismaying about this state of affairs is that for the past 50 years the United States has skillfully merged its own agenda with the agendas of others, creating a sense of shared interests and values. When Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy waged the Cold War, they also presented the world with a constructive agenda dealing with trade, poverty and health. They fought communism with one hand and offered hope with the other. We have fallen far from that model if the head of the Chinese Communist Party is seen as presenting the world with a more progressive agenda than the president of the world's leading democracy.

  thanks to Talking Points Memo