CHINA is heading for a period of uncertainty as its leaders struggle to turn the nation into the next Asian giant, according to a prominent American Sinologist, Michel Oksenberg. Speaking at the Asia Society yesterday, the president of the East West Centre in Honolulu said if Chinese leaders' long march to superpower status fails, China could linger among developing countries such as Brazil, India or Indonesia. According to Professor Oksenberg, four factors - leadership crisis, changing social values, China's economic health and the international environment - will shape China's future. The leadership uncertainty was partly because any contenders to succeed patriarch Deng Xiaoping would choose not to exhibit their ''qualities'' now, given the fall of top leaders such as Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang and Yang Shangkun. The ambiguity over the future leadership was also linked to the uncertain attitude of the nation's security apparatus including the People's Armed Police which had become increasingly involved in the rapidly commercialised society. ''Does the military remain an effective and coercive organisation? What about the People's Armed Police . . . Is it separate from the military? Is it effective? These are difficult questions given the opaqueness of China's political system,'' said Professor Oksenberg. The third unknown factor in the successor issue concerned the relationship between the central and regional governments and whether the new man would have both the brain and muscle to implement an effective revenue-sharing and banking system that would be able to hold the country together. The future leader, Professor Oksenberg said, would also be the determining factor in the fate of the Chinese Communist Party which might not follow in the footsteps of its Soviet counterpart and might still have the ability to reform itself. On the issue of social values, the professor said the past decade of reform had led to a ''value vacuum'' in Chinese society that he described as dangerous. Meanwhile, China faced tremendous pressure as the country struggled to balance its import and export needs although the professor admitted the fundamentals of the economy were sound notwithstanding problems such as unemployment and inflation. However, China's rapid rise could have an unpredictable effect on the world economy. ''Is the world prepared for China's entry into the world economy? And can this entry occur with minimum disruption so there is not a reaction to this rapid economic rise of China?'' asked Professor Oksenberg. He said the present global environment could be a beneficial factor in China's pursuit of its modernisation dream. ''Except for the economic area . . . I believe the world is basically prepared from a strategic point of view to accept China's rise provided that China in its weapon acquisition and sales . . . does not become or seem threatening or destabilising,'' he said.