The Birth of the New Asia 
by Xu Xiaobing

Compared to the major capitals and cities in Asia, let alone in the rest of the world, it is still rare for Beijing and China's other booming cities to host an international organisation. That may soon be changed, however.

In recent years, China's embrace of multilateralism has been momentous. In addition to accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and improved co-operation with a variety of international organisations, one equally important aspect of China's embrace of multilateralism is that it has become a major force in pushing for new regionalism in Asia.

China has been behind a series of initiatives for new Asian regional organisations - economic, political and technological; governmental as well as non-governmental.

For example, China was one of the six original members of the Shanghai Co-operative Organisation (SCO). Although the SCO initially focused on security issues, its members have agreed to expand its role into economic co-operation. The increase in the SCO's importance is underlined not only by its moving forward to address economic integration but also by applications for membership from other Asian countries such as India.

An outstanding example of China's active involvement in regionalism is its sponsorship of the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), a non-governmental Asian forum modelled on the World Economic Forum in Davos. Located in Hainan province, the BFA has so far convened three successful annual conferences along with many seminars and workshops. It has arguably become an important platform for exploring Asian issues and strengthening partnerships between Asian governments and business sectors in promoting regional economic development and co-operation.

China has also been at the centre of initiating several new technological organisations. The Asian and Pacific Centre for Agricultural Engineering and Machinery, for example, is the first office from the UN Secretariat to have its headquarters in Beijing. More significantly, last month, 15 nations decided that the proposed Asia-Pacific Space Co-operation Organisation would be based in Beijing.
Perhaps the most influential move China has made in promoting Asian regional economic integration was its agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to establish the China-Asean free-trade area in 2010. After this agreement was reached, India and Japan soon followed suit and agreed to establish similar free-trade zones with Asean in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

Apparently, China's move has challenged other nations in the region to think and act similarly. There is now substantial momentum towards a new Asian sense of region.

It remains to be seen to what extent this regionalism will succeed. Unresolved historical issues linger between China and such key regional players as Japan and India, so that China seems poised to continue driving the new regionalist movement. China's growing power and influence have made such a leading role possible, and China has also become a much friendlier place for foreigners.

Only 20 to 30 years ago, when groups of westerners landed in China, they found themselves closely watched and followed wherever they went by crowds of curious Chinese people clad in blue and gray.

Today, foreigners in the mainland's big cities hardly garner a second glance. The dozen or so foreigners who live in my apartment building in Shanghai simply live among us Chinese, enjoying private life in the mainland.

More than 440,000 overseas experts, including 190,000 from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, have been working in China over the past two years. Added to that are more than 60,000 foreigners - nearly half of them in Shanghai - who are now working in Chinese, foreign or Sino-foreign joint enterprises.

China has also experienced a huge increase in the presence of another kind of international organisation - the transnational or multinational corporation. Among the world's 500 largest such corporations, 400 are currently operating in China.

Not to be ignored either are the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing and the 2010 Shanghai Expo, which will undoubtedly cap the many international conferences and events - including many Asian regional ones - that are being, and are going to be, held in China over the coming years.

So the next group of foreigners to walk Chinese streets could well be international staff members based in the headquarters of regional organisations.