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.?

  • Matias Costa

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

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    You may know all about the world coming to China--about the hordes of foreign businesspeople setting up factories and boutiques and showrooms in places like Shanghai and Shenzhen. But you probably know less about how China is going out into the world. Through its foreign investments and appetite for raw materials, the world's most populous country has already transformed economies from Angola to Australia. Now China is turning that commercial might into real political muscle, striding onto the global stage and acting like a nation that very much intends to become the world's next great power. In the past year, China has established itself as the key dealmaker in nuclear negotiations with North Korea, allied itself with Russia in an attempt to shape the future of central Asia, launched a diplomatic offensive in Europe and Latin America and contributed troops to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon. With the U.S. preoccupied with the threat of Islamic terrorism and struggling to extricate itself from a failing war in Iraq, China seems ready to challenge--possibly even undermine--some of Washington's other foreign policy goals, from halting the genocide in Darfur to toughening sanctions against Iran. China's international role has won the attention of the new Democratic majority in Congress. Tom Lantos, incoming chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and a critic of Beijing's human-rights record, told TIME that he intends to hold early hearings on China, on everything from its censorship of the Internet to its policies toward Tibet. "China is thinking in much more active terms about its strategy," says Kenneth Lieberthal of the University of Michigan, who was senior director at the National Security Council Asia desk under President Bill Clinton, "not only regionally, but globally, than it has done in the past. We have seen a sea change in China's fundamental level of confidence."

    Blink for a moment and you can imagine that--as many Chinese would tell the tale--after nearly 200 years of foreign humiliation, invasion, civil war, revolution and unspeakable horrors, China is preparing for a date with destiny. "The Chinese wouldn't put it this way themselves," says Lieberthal. "But in their hearts I think they believe that the 21st century is China's century."

    That's quite something to believe. Is it true? Or rather--since the century is yet young--will it be true? If so, when, and how would it happen? How comfortable would such a development be for the West? Can China's rise be managed peaceably by the international system? Or will China so threaten the interests of established powers that, as with Germany at the end of the 19th century and Japan in the 1930s, war one day comes? Those questions are going to be nagging at us for some time--but a peaceful, prosperous future for both China and the West depends on trying to answer them now.


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