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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?

(Page 5 of 7)

Nor does Beijing show much sign at the moment of seeking to push any particular model of governance or political mind-set, which is music to the ears of men like Mr. Mende, the Congolese communications minister. "We don't believe in that trend of Western powers mixing with internal affairs of countries," he says. "We don't like people giving us orders. China is more about respecting the self-determination of their partner."

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That hands-off approach also steers the country clear of alliances that might enmesh Beijing in the costly defense of other people's interests. Even those Pakistani officials who would like to play Beijing off against Washington recall that not once has Beijing stepped in to help Pakistan in any of its wars with India, all of which Pakistan lost.

"China wants to make the deals but not to shoulder responsibilities," says Zhu, the Peking University international relations scholar. "We are far from ready, psychologically, to make ourselves a dependable power."

The government's recent white paper acknowledged as much: "For China, the most populous developing country, to run itself well is the most important fulfillment of its international responsibility."

Recent events in Libya illustrate how far China is from playing a creative international diplomatic role. Throughout the crisis, Beijing was a passive, reactive bystander, going along with Western intervention. But, focused on protecting its oil interests above all else, it was the last major power to recognize the new Libyan government. That cautious attitude was on display again last week in China's reluctance to contribute as heavily to the eurozone's bailout fund as European leaders had hoped it would. China was not, after all, going to save the world.

"China's diplomacy is cost-benefit-oriented, not dealing in terms of global public goods," argues Professor Shambaugh. "It's a very self-interested country, looking after themselves."

One result of that attitude? "China is rising, but we are a lonely rising power," says Zhu. "The US has alliances; no one is an ally of China's."


Vietnam was once an ally, when Hanoi was fighting the Americans, but not any longer.

"Jamais," read T-shirts that Vietnamese protesters donned last month, "Never." The slogan recalled Ho Chi Minh's forceful response when he was asked by a French interviewer whether Vietnam would become a Chinese satellite after the war. It still expresses the popular, centuries-old anti-Chinese feeling that runs deeper than any shared allegiance to communism.

The demonstrators were protesting the aggressive way they said China is pushing its claim to the Spratly Islands, a cluster of rocks in the South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Both countries are eyeing oil and gas reserves under surrounding seas. Chinese naval vessels have arrested more than 1,000 Vietnamese fishermen in disputed waters this year, according to the Hanoi fisheries authorities.

China is embroiled in similar territorial disputes in the South China Sea with several other regional powers, and they all sent their defense ministers to Tokyo last month to discuss ways of deepening their cooperation.

"China's aspirations to be a regional leader are meeting resistance from other states already," says Hugh White, a former Australian defense official. "Beijing would like to exercise a soft, consensual leadership, but they won't be able to achieve it" because none of China's neighbors would accept it.

China's key local priority abroad is to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence and to eventually unite the island with the mainland. But Beijing's escalation of its territorial claims to almost the whole of the South China Sea and its rapid modernization of a navy to enforce those claims alarm Washington's and China's neighbors. Fifty percent of world trade is shipped through those waters.

"China's one overriding focus is to challenge US ability to project its power in the western Pacific," says Mr. White. "They want to be able to sink American aircraft carriers."


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