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The rise of an economic superpower: What does China want?

As an economic superpower, what does China want on the global stage?

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In general terms, most China watchers in the West agree. What China wants is pretty straightforward and unexceptionable: to be prosperous, secure, and respected.

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"We'd like to be an equal partner on the world stage, and we want the Chinese people to enjoy prosperity," says Wu Jianmin, a former ambassador to Paris and now an adviser to the Foreign Ministry. "For that, international cooperation is indispensable; China is not so arrogant as to say that it's our turn now to run the world our way."

Rarely in its history has China looked very hard or long at the rest of the world. Admiral Zheng He led exploratory fleets as far as Africa in the 15th century, but subsequent emperors were content to sit on the throne of the Middle Kingdom, at the center of their universe, and focus on their own lands. China spent a hundred years of submission to Western powers following its defeat in the 19th-century Opium Wars, and it was mired in decades of disruption before and after Mao Zedong's 1949 Communist takeover.

Only with its newfound wealth has Beijing found itself with a major role on the world stage.

"It's a very big challenge to restructure our relations with the world while retaining its trust," worries Zhu Feng, a professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University.

So, as China rises, its leaders are going out of their way to try to reassure the world that their success is, in a favorite official phrase, a "win-win" prospect for everybody. So nervous were policy-makers here about upsetting foreigners that they scotched their original formulation of China's future – "peaceful rise" – as too threatening. Instead they settled on "peaceful development."

Last month the government issued a 32-page white paper full of comforting words explaining what it wants the world to understand by that phrase.

"There have been misunderstandings about China's foreign policy," said Wang Yajun, the Communist Party's top foreign-policy wonk, presenting the document to the press. "There have indeed been suspicions."

The white paper's key message is that China threatens no one, that its rise will contribute to world peace, and that "the central goal of China's diplomacy is to create a peaceful and stable international environment for its development. China could become strong in the future. Yet peace will remain critical for its development, and China has no reason to deviate from the path of peaceful development."

"China does not want to, nor will China, challenge the international order or challenge other countries," insisted Mr. Wang, pointing to the white paper declaration that China has "broken away from the traditional pattern where a rising power was bound to seek hegemony."

Not everyone believes this, even in China. "Humanity is making progress," argues Wang Xiaodong, a prominent nationalist ideologue whose views are proving increasingly influential among the Chinese public, "but not so much that China will be unique in human history. The idea that China will develop its power but not use it is diplomatic verbiage."

China's Southeast Asian neighbors might well agree. Until earlier this year Beijing had been unusually assertive in pushing its competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, worrying smaller nations. But the way it has eased off in recent months in the face of complaints suggests it cannot do just as it likes.

"China tests the water constantly, and when they don't get what they want they tend to back down," says Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "As they develop their military capacities, they have to be very careful not to use them in ways that scare the neighbors."

The Chinese government's need to explain itself stems partly from the system's chronic secrecy: Outsiders do not even know when the ruling Standing Committee of the Communist Party's Politburo meets, let alone how its nine members reach decisions or what those decisions are.

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