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The Monitor's View

China becomes world's second-largest economy but it's far from being a leader

This milestone by China in besting Japan as the world's second-largest economy only adds to the concerns of other Asian nations about China's aggressive expansion. They welcome Obama's shift toward countering China as the dominant player in Asia.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / August 16, 2010

It has taken China only 30 years since it embraced capitalism to create the second largest economy, beating out Japan and positioning itself to surpass the US over the next two decades. The world should take care, however, in noting this achievement. China has yet to display a similar growth as a respected, responsible partner in either Asian or global affairs.

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Its neighbors, from South Korea to Vietnam to India, have recently become anxious as China wields its new-found strength with reckless impatience, claiming territory, controlling markets, and expanding its Navy in provocative ways. It even defied much of the world in not condemning North Korea’s recent sinking of a South Korean warship.

The response by many Asian nations has been a renewed embrace of the region’s longtime protector, the United States.

That embrace, however, is not just because the US is a geopolitical power with a Navy and an economy that can counter China’s expansion. No, fundamentally it is because the US still displays values and leadership that far surpass those of China in attracting allies.

The new regional concerns about China confront the US with a dilemma: How much should it contain China in areas that appear threatening while also trying to engage it as a potential strategic partner?

That requires a tricky balance. Containment worked during the cold war to bring down the Soviet Union because the communist system collapsed under its own contradictions. US containment of China also helped force it to abandon a communist-oriented economy in 1979, but not its authoritarian rule.

Since the end of the cold war in 1991, the US has more often than not tried to engage China, most notably in letting it enter the World Trade Organization and in seeking its help on crises such as the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. But President Obama has begun to shift toward containing China, forcing the question of how far the US should go.