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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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At the same time, some observers suggest, there is not always a coherent answer to the question of why China does what it does. The Chinese government is not a monolithic force; pressure groups and cliques from the military to provincial governments have their own interests and can sometimes push aspects of foreign policy their way.

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"They don't have a clear and well-defined road map of how to achieve their goals long term other than to pursue development as they have done," says Michael Swaine, a China watcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Nor, frankly, do foreign affairs seem to figure very high on Chinese leaders' agendas. "International questions are an afterthought," says Francois Godement, founder of the Asia Centre, a Paris-based think tank. Instead, for a Communist Party whose overriding priority is to stay in power, domestic problems threatening social stability at home are infinitely more important.

"We have to change our unsustainable development model into a sustainable one" less dependent on high pollution, low-value exports, argues Mr. Wu, the foreign-ministry adviser, "and we have to narrow the disparity between rich and poor."

"China will be preoccupied for a long time with its domestic agenda," agrees Professor Zhu. "If you want to handle complex relationships, the starting point is to get yourself in the best possible shape. It's like Kung Fu Panda says – you need inner peace."

CHINA IS RICH BUT LONELY

As the big guns of the Democratic Republic of Congo's mining sector gathered last month at a smart lakeside hotel in the copper capital of Lubumbashi, some important new players were notably absent from the conference. Those who attended said they weren't surprised that no Chinese company had sent a delegate; the Chinese rarely mix with their mining colleagues, they explain.

But a visit to a local casino, heavily protected behind high, razor wire-topped walls, is evidence enough that the Chinese are indeed in town, and with money to spend: The clientele in the smoky, air-conditioned chill is almost exclusively Chinese – crowded at roulette tables and playing blackjack and poker, with mounds of chips in front of them.

These men are part of a growing Chinese presence in Congo that has already flexed some impressive economic muscle. Chinese companies are behind two billion-dollar deals, now in the works, to buy two large copper mines near Lubumbashi. Across the African continent, others like them are engaged in China's most dramatic drive for friends abroad, seeking to secure the oil, minerals, and other raw materials that China's still-booming economy needs.

"China's financial support on the continent gives African countries a choice" between East and West, says one Chinese activist at a nongovernmental organization following Beijing's African adventure, who asked not to be identified.

China's financial muscle has been key to its growing influence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Beijing signed a $6 billion minerals-for-infrastructure deal in 2009. Congo's traditional Western partners don't have the ready cash for the mammoth task of rebuilding the war-ravaged country, says Congo's communications minister, Lambert Mende, so "China is very important."

In return for 10 million tons of copper and 600,000 tons of cobalt, China will build roads, schools, hydroelectric dams, and hospitals. Half the deal is a barter, which means that it adds less to the country's foreign debt burden.

"Whether [the deal] will prove to be more effective than the Western model in the long term remains to be seen," says Lizzie Parsons of the Global Witness pressure group. Among unanswered questions: whether money will be siphoned off corruptly, whether all the infrastructure will be built, and what impact fluctuating mineral prices will have on the deal.

Orange construction vehicles from China are already a common sight at roadworks all over the capital, Kinshasa, and more and more people are doing business with Chinese firms. The experience is not always a pleasant one, according to one Western businessman who has worked in Kinshasa for nearly two decades.

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