The BBC is running a special week of coverage of China from 7 March. Paul Reynolds, World Affairs correspondent for the BBC News website, explains why the country deserves such attention.
China may soon be a global power, but it still has far to go
China used to be called a sleeping giant. Now, as the world's fastest growing major economy, it is often called a waking giant.
Yet it might be more useful to understand it as something else - as a giant which wants to regain its rightful place.
And that rightful place, it thinks, is at the centre of the world.
The world which China once knew was relatively small. Yet Chinese rulers regarded themselves as supreme in it.
"Before the 'century of humiliation', which began in the 1840s when the British empire encroached on China and lasted until the communist takeover in 1949, China was the pre-eminent power as far as it could reach," said Dr Steven Tsang of St Antony's College, Oxford.
"Its basic outlook is that it has always been a world power."
In this view of China, what is happening now is a steady build-up of Chinese economic power backed up by increasing military strength, all designed to enable it to resume its role and to make up for the humiliations of the past.
It is now 25 years since China started reforming its economy and opening to the world. During that time it has been transformed from a poor and introspective communist backwater, to one of the world's most important economies.
Goods made in China now fill every Western household. China's need for raw materials to feed its economic growth have forced it to scout places like South America and Africa for new suppliers.
Now Chinese companies are starting to buy up famous companies overseas as they enter the global market.
In short, for the first time in modern history, China's development has an impact on people all around the world.
But what sort of China are we dealing with, and will it soon be a global superpower to rival the US, as some analysts predict?
China is patient - it waited for Hong Kong to come back within its fold.
Chinese is also determined - it will not permit independence for Taiwan.
However, China will not be in a position to exert world influence for many years, Dr Tsang said.
"China is a major economic power, no question. It would like to be seen as a rising power and one which rises in a peaceful and responsible way. Its diplomacy has been wonderfully effective in presenting that," he said.
"But there is a lot of muddled thinking about this. It is not a world power. China does not have the capacity of being a global power for 20 years."
China's need for energy is increasing every year
Such a view of China does not stop the United States from regarding it, in President Bush's words, as a "strategic competitor".
And such is China's impact on the world that the question of arms sales to China has now impacted on EU-US relations.
China's huge need for energy will also increasingly have to be taken into account. It is already, for example, getting oil from Iran and that has implications. It might block any Security Council sanctions over Iran's nuclear programme.
One day China will be under pressure to come under whatever agreement might follow the Kyoto Protocol, from which, as a developing country, it is exempt.
So China is already exerting an influence beyond its region.
The question is, what kind of power does China want to be?
So far, it has been content to exert its influence cautiously. It rarely causes ructions on the UN Security Council.
"China is happy to co-exist with lesser states as it did before," says Dr Tsang.
The key phrase, of course, is "lesser states". They would have to be lesser. That is something which worries Japan, for example, which itself once sought to exercise regional domination by force.
China is determined not to allow Taiwanese independence
China's approach is different.
"China wants to be the regional power in Asia and to reduce the influence of the United States," said Andrew Kennedy, head of the Asia programme at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
"But it needs its neighbours and is building up friendships. Senior members of the government and party are always travelling and visiting. They have also courted Europe, especially Britain, France and Germany," he said.
The cloud on the horizon is Taiwan, to which the anti-communist Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist government retreated in 1949.
China's policy towards Taiwan is clear. A Chinese Defence White Paper in December 2004 stated: "We will never allow anyone to split Taiwan from China through whatever means. Should the Taiwan authorities go so far as to make a reckless attempt that constitutes a major incident of 'Taiwan independence', the Chinese people and armed forces will resolutely and thoroughly crush it at any cost."
This explains the Chinese military build-up. According to Andrew Kennedy, Chinese military spending is probably seven or eight times its stated expenditure of $25bn. It has been busy buying from Russia and would like to buy from Europe.
"China is not yet in a position to carry out D-Day type landings in Taiwan, but it does not need to invade. It could blockade and is increasing its maritime power to that end with destroyers and submarines." said Mr Kennedy.
The issue in any conflict between China and Taiwan would be the attitude of the United States, which over recent years has been deliberately ambiguous.
It does not want to give Taiwan a blank cheque for independence nor China a free hand for invasion.
The law governing a US response, the Taiwan Relations Act 1979, commits the US to "to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character." It states that the US would regard "any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States."
But a military defence of Taiwan would be left for a decision at the time.
According to Dr Steven Tsang, China would prefer to subdue by the threat of force.
"Chinese military philosophy is the same today as it was 2,000 years ago. It is to win without fighting," he says.
The longer-term question the rest of the world has to ask about China is whether the present hybrid communist-capitalist system that has emerged since China started its economic reforms can last.
"I believe it will collapse one day," says Dr Tsang. "The Communist Party cannot survive for another 30 years.
"What emerges could be a different, democratic China. Then the old mentality of being the premier power will disappear. A benign China could become a reality."