China Takes on the World

Already a commercial giant, China is aiming to be the world's next great power. Will that lead to a confrontation with the U.S.?

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Matias Costa

Chinese construction workers work on a structure that will be used during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

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China doesn't support unsavory regimes for the sake of it. Instead China's key objective is to ensure a steady supply of natural resources, so that its economy can sustain the growth that officials hope will keep a lid on unrest at home. That is why China has reached out to resource-rich democracies like Australia and Brazil as much as it has to such international pariahs as Sudan and Burma, both of which have underdeveloped hydrocarbon reserves. There's nothing particularly surprising about any of this; it is how all nations behave when domestic supplies of primary goods are no longer sufficient to sustain their economies. (Those Westerners who criticize China for its behavior in Africa might remember their own history on the continent.) But China has never needed such resources in such quantities before, so its politicians have never had to learn the skills of getting them without looking like a dictator's friend. Now they have to.

WORKING WITH CHINA

Assuming a bigger global presence has forced Beijing to learn the art of international diplomacy. Until recently, China's foreign policy consisted of little more than bloodcurdling condemnations of hegemonic imperialism. "This is a country that 30 years ago pretty much saw things in zero-sum terms," says former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. "What was good for the U.S. or the West was bad for China, and vice versa." Those days are gone. Wang Jisi of Beijing University, one of China's top foreign policy scholars, says one of the most important developments of 2006 was that the communiqué issued after a key conference on foreign affairs for top officials had no reference to the tired old terms that have been standard in China's diplomatic vocabulary.

Washington would like Beijing to go further. In a speech in 2005, Zoellick invited China to become a "responsible stakeholder" in international affairs. China's national interest, Zoellick argued, should not be narrowly defined, but would be "much better served by working with us to shape the future international system," on everything from intellectual-property rights to nuclear nonproliferation. Says Zoellick: "I'm not sure anyone had ever put it quite in those terms, and it clearly had a bracing effect."

That would imply that China's behavior has changed of late. Has it? A U.S. policymaker cautions, "It's important to see the 'responsible stakeholder' notion as a future vision of China." In practice, this official says, "They've been more helpful in some areas than others." When the stars align--when China's perception of its own national interest matches what the U.S. and other international powers seek--that help can be significant. Exhibit A is North Korea, long a Chinese ally, with whom China once fought a war against the U.S. As North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il developed a nuclear-weapons program in the 1990s, China had to choose between irking the U.S.--which would have implied doing little to rein in Pyongyang--or stiffing its former protégé.

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