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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    Nor is China's smiling face visible only to its south. In a cordial state visit last year, Hu reached out to India--an old rival with which it still has some disputed borders. The two countries pledged to double trade by 2010 and agreed to bid jointly for global oil projects on which they had previously been competing. Hu has also sought to mend ties with Japan, another longtime rival, with whom China's relations have deteriorated in recent years. Last October, Hu met the new Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, in Beijing just days after Abe took office, a visit Hu called a "turning point" in frosty relations between the two countries and which Premier Wen described as a "window of hope."


    So, a China whose influence is growing but that is trying to ease old antagonisms--what's not to like?

    In one view, nothing at all, as long as China's rise remains peaceful, with China neither provoking others to rein in its power nor slipping into outward aggression. And yet as remote as a confrontation seems today, there are some China watchers who fear a conflict with the West could still materialize in coming years. They point to two factors: the modernization of China's defense forces and the risk of war over Taiwan. The authoritative Military Balance, published annually by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, estimates that China's military spending has increased nearly 300% in the past decade and from 1.08% of its GDP in 1995 to 1.55% in 2005. (By contrast, the U.S. spends 3.9% of its GDP on defense, and the U.S. economy is more than five times as big as China's.) China's most recent defense white paper, published last month, showed a 15% rise in military spending in the past year. Place such an increase in the context of Taiwan policy and you can start to feel queasy. The island has been governed independently since the defeated forces of Chiang Kai-shek retreated there in 1949. Beijing wants to see the island reunited with the mainland one day. The U.S., although it has a one-China policy and has no formal diplomatic mission in Taiwan, is committed to defend Taiwan from an unprovoked attack by China.

    In all likelihood, war over Taiwan is unlikely. After a miserable 200 years, China's prospects now are as bright as ever, the opportunities of its people improving each year. It would take a particularly stupid or evil group of leaders to put that glittering prize at risk in a war. Those in Taiwan who favor independence--including its President Chen Shui-bian--have singularly failed to win the support of the Bush Administration. "China," says Huang Jing of the Brookings Institution in Washington, "is now basically on the same page as the U.S. when it comes to Taiwan. Neither wants independence for Taiwan. Both want peace and stability." China's military buildup is best seen as a corollary of changes in Chinese society. Where Chinese military doctrine was once based on human-wave attacks, it now stresses the killing power of technology. There's nothing new, or particularly frightening, about such a transformation; it's what nations do all the time. If the Sioux hadn't learned how to handle horses and shoot Winchesters, they wouldn't have wiped out Custer's forces at the Little Bighorn.

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