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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 October, 2004, 15:45 GMT 16:45 UK
China takes place on world stage

By Tim Luard
BBC, China

As China gets richer and stronger, the world is coming to share its belief that it merits recognition and respect as a great power.

Through a combination of economic dynamism, skilful diplomacy and understated threat, it is already regaining much of its old imperial supremacy across Asia.

Filling the void left by the former Soviet Union, it has also emerged as the likeliest challenger to the United States as a global superpower.

Scavengers wait for garbage next to new high-rising buildings, Shanghai
China may soon be a global power, but it still has far to go
But is it really willing or able to go that far? And if so, what sort of superpower might it be - benign or otherwise?

"There is no doubt in my mind that China is headed towards being a great power and as such will shatter the global status quo," said Jeffrey E Garten, Dean of the Yale School of Management in the US.

That is still a long way off, according to Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

For the foreseeable future China will be no match for the US, he said.

But that does not mean it is happy with the way things are. Every country has the wish to be world leader, he said.

"China doesn't want to accept US leadership. Confrontation is inevitable."

It is unusual for a country that achieves economic primacy not to have military ambitions, said Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Arms Project.

"At present China can't compete militarily with the US. But it's important to remember that American military might is built on the superiority of the US economy. The day when China has more money than anyone, it'll have a better defence than anyone".

Rising from the depths

For some 40 years after the communists came to power, China was looked on by other Asian nations as poor and dangerous, and best avoided.

But now, as the long-promised Century of the Pacific unfolds, it has thrown off its strange ideas of revolution and is returning to its earlier role as head of the family.

Man looks at stock market figures
China's economy has been growing rapidly in recent years
Beijing is increasingly driving East Asia's agenda, taking a guiding hand in its multilateral organisations and fuelling its economic resurgence.

Japan remains close to the United States, but it too is looking to China and its markets to save it from stagnation.

South East Asian countries, where ethnic Chinese have become increasingly powerful, no longer see Japan as an option for the region's leader.

While China may be Asia's new champion, it is also seen as a competitor by those states with similar export-driven economies. And there are still doubts about its intentions.

"For South East Asia, China poses not only an economic challenge but also a cultural and conventional military threat," said Kobsak Chutikul, a prominent Thai politician.

The Chinese want to rise quietly and gently - but whether they will change once they arrive is an open question
Barry Buzan, London School of Economics
"Before taking flight, a dragon usually has first to breathe fire," he said.

China's ruling Communist Party is anxious to soothe any fears of angry dragons.

It recently started talking about the country's "peaceful rise" - but then stopped, apparently because some leaders thought the word "peaceful" might annoy the army, while others thought even the word "rise" might spread alarm overseas.

Questioned by BBC News, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao admitted there had been an argument.

The intended message, he said, was that China's development would not be at the cost of other countries.

China was a regional and a major world power and would play an increasingly influential role, he said.

But it should be seen as an opportunity, not a threat.

He carefully avoided using the word "rise" - and like all officials reacted with dismissive horror to any mention of the word "superpower".

But if superpowers are still going, most observers predict China will want to be one. And while it may still be a developing country, it is a very determined one.

Powerful force

Having the Asian bandwagon behind it has greatly strengthened China's claims as a global power, but others should be on their guard, according to Barry Buzan, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.

"The Chinese want to rise quietly and gently - but whether they will change once they arrive is an open question," he said.

Chinese military police
At the moment, China's military cannot compete with that of the US
"Hyper-nationalism" was "seething below the surface," he added, and there were "striking comparisons" with the rise of pre-war Germany.

Others say China is now firmly wedded to the same free-market principles as America.

The biggest threat, they say, is of disintegration and chaos, which might bring the spread of refugees or weapons of mass destruction.

They point out that China has historically been an inward-looking nation, not given to aggressive expansion.

It tends to behave like someone who knows he is powerful and therefore has no need to impose himself on others, said Hugh Baker of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

He quoted a classical saying to describe the attitude of a future Chinese superpower:

"The gentleman does not fight. Were he to do so, he would win."

This is the final article in a series about change in modern China. Click below for the other four:



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