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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The U.S. can also encourage China's leaders to recognize that irresponsible policies will diminish China's long-term influence. As China expands its global reach, it will find itself exposed to all sorts of pressures--of the sort it has never had to face before--to behave itself. Already, there are voices in Africa warning China that it is acting just like the white imperialists of old. In the Zambian city of Kabwe, where the Chinese own a manganese smelter, the local shops are stocked with Chinese-made clothes rather than local ones. In the oil-rich delta region of Nigeria, where Chinese rigs have a reputation for poor safety and employment practices, a militia group recently warned the Chinese they would be targeted for attack unless they changed their ways.

There are some glimmers that such criticism is having an impact in Beijing. The Chinese, says Joshua Kurlantzick of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "are beginning to understand that some of their policies in Africa are turning people off" and have quietly turned to the U.S. and Britain for help in devising foreign-aid policies. A former senior U.S. official says Chinese officials have been closely monitoring the growing international distaste over its support for the Sudanese government. Congressman Lantos says younger Chinese diplomats "are embarrassed that the Chinese government is prepared to do any business with Sudan for oil despite what is happening in Darfur." Slowly, slowly, engagement with China, debate with its leaders--and the hope that as they see more of the world, they will understand why so many want to shun dictatorships--may all act to shade Chinese behavior.

Such engagement will always be controversial. Like it or not, it involves cozying up to a nation that is not a democracy--and does not look as if it will become one soon. But China is now so significant a player in the global economy that the alternative--waiting until China changes its ways--won't fly. There is still time to hope that China's way into the world will be a smooth one. Perhaps above anything else, the sheer scale of China's domestic agenda is likely to act as a brake on its doing anything dramatically destabilizing abroad.

On the optimistic view, then, China's rise to global prominence can be managed. It doesn't have to lead to the sort of horror that accompanied the emerging power of Germany or Japan. Raise a glass to that, but don't get too comfortable. There need be no wars between China and the U.S., no catastrophes, no economic competition that gets out of hand. But in this century the relative power of the U.S. is going to decline, and that of China is going to rise. That cake was baked long ago. [This article contains charts and graphs. Please see hardcopy or pdf.]

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