China ready to flex wings as world power

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 August, 2009, 12:00am

From successfully hosting the 2008 Olympic Games to recognition as a so-called G2 partner with the US, China's clout on the global stage has had a boost. And significantly, this has been achieved in a year, not decades.

Last year's Games were perhaps the most visible symbol of China's rapid rise as an international power. Not only did the event serve as China's 'coming-out party', but it also helped mark the country's economic achievements, especially those since the beginning of this millennium, said Jin Canrong , deputy dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University. In this short time, China moved from being the world's sixth-largest economy to being No3.

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a China watcher at City University of Hong Kong, said the success of the Olympics had given China's leadership a major psychological boost. With it came more confidence on the international stage and more assertiveness in foreign policy.

Steven Tsang, a China watcher at Britain's Oxford University, said that while the central government gained a lot of good coverage through the Games, he was not sure 'if this really enhanced the country's soft power that much'.

'This does not mean the leadership does not believe in trying to raise China's standing and improve its image. The Olympics has certainly reinforced this,' Professor Tsang said. 'But the outside world has largely forgotten about the Games by now.'

For years, China's foreign policy was guided by Deng Xiaoping's cautious injunction tao guang yang hui, a term used by ancient strategists and often translated as 'hiding one's capacities and biding one's time'. But it seems that China's time has arrived.

From its naval confrontation with the US in the South China Sea in March to its challenge to the US dollar's international position, Beijing appears ever more confident as it extends its reach around the globe - and its rivals appear more watchful.

Vice-President Xi Jinping, who appears to be the heir apparent to President Hu Jintao , struck a different note to Deng's philosophy on an overseas trip this spring. Blogs quoted him saying: 'There are some well-fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our affairs. China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; third, cause troubles for you. What else is there to say?'

Recent headlines are further evidence of the arrival of a new power: 'Chinese peacekeepers patrol Darfur and Kosovo'; and 'Chinese navy battle Somalian pirates'.

Premier Wen Jiabao publicly fretted about the safety of China's vast US treasury holdings, and People's Bank of China governor Zhou Xiaochuan caused a stir at the London G20 summit in April by calling for the creation of a non-sovereign currency to replace the greenback as the mainstream international reserve currency. They also lobbied for allowing developing countries to have a greater voice in global affairs and the global oversight of the Western-led financial system.

China's state-owned companies are becoming the world's big spenders, looking to acquire assets, from minerals to top brands, from bankrupt Western companies.

Mr Hu took centre stage at the G20 summit. But also making a splash was the 'G2' concept - or the Group of Two nations, meaning the United States and China - suggesting China is itching to challenge America's global economic and political dominance. At the G20, China pledged US$40 billion in extra funding to the International Monetary Fund, a move Xinhua described as having given Beijing 'a chance to showcase its growing importance to the world economy'. A National Intelligence Council report indicates the coming of a new world order: by 2025, the world will say farewell to US supremacy, and China is expected to be biggest beneficiary of that change, it says. The council is a US government body.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs predicted China would overtake the US as the world's largest economy by 2040, but that date has been brought forward to 2027 in its latest report. Professor Niall Ferguson of Harvard University has even predicted the end of 'Chimerica', a term coined to describe the symbiosis of the Chinese and US economies in the past decade. He now sees the Chinese economy becoming independent of the US as a result of the current recession.

Professor Tsang said the main sources of Chinese soft power come from a 'China fever' in recent years. It also comes out of the expectation, and therefore the perception, that China will bail the world economy out of this recession. The relative decline of the capitalist model also helps boost China's soft power, as some developing nations are looking at the Chinese model to reinvent their growth, he said.

While the world is watching China's rise with worry, there is growing debate in Beijing over how its foreign policy should respond to fast-changing global economics and politics. Some say Beijing should seize opportunities to win international standing by playing a bigger role in international economic negotiations and traditional security.

Others agree with Wu Jianmin, president of China Foreign Affairs University, who advises China's leaders to 'remain level-headed and continue tao guang yang hui'.

Zuo Xiaolei, chief economist with Galaxy Securities, warned that the G2 concept was a total exaggeration of China's rising clout, saying Western countries want to use it to pressure China to contribute more to help bail out the global economy.

'It is total nonsense to suggest China as No2 in the world's economy, just in view of its about 6 per cent share of gross global product, while Japan is about 8 per cent, Europe is 24 per cent and the US is 25 per cent,' Ms Zuo said.

Analysts also point out that despite its increasing soft power, China cannot change the world's perception of it as long as it continues to be ruled by one party.

'The international perception of China's rising profile on the world stage and its increasing assertiveness in diplomacy in the year since the Olympics is still mixed, as human rights, Tibet and mostly Xinjiang issues continue to remind the world that China is still a one-party-ruled communist nation,' Professor Cheng said, adding that the unresolved legacy of the Tiananmen crackdown and its treatment of the Falun Gong also damaged the country's image.

Professor Tsang added that Beijing's handling of last month's unrest in Xinjiang, and Mr Hu's abbreviated participation in the G8 meeting, also damaged China's international image.

Dai Qing, a long-time dissident based in Beijing, said China's success in hosting the Olympic Games and its rising international clout had only encouraged the government to continue to tighten its grip on the media, suppress free speech and heighten its repression in Tibet and Xinjiang in the past year.

Clearly, as the rest of the world watches those repressive policies at home as well as what China does in flexing its economic and political muscles abroad, the country still has far to go to make the world perceive it as it would like.