China and the World

By May, Greg | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview

China and the World


May, Greg, The World and I


The global community is seeking to encourage China the aspiring global citizen while avoiding appeasement of China the dictator.

According to the Beijing leadership, the world has nothing to fear from China's rise. "China," said President Jiang Zemin last year at the Communist Party Congress, "will never seek hegemony. . . . The Chinese people, for a long time subjected to aggression, oppression, and humiliation by foreign powers, will never inflict these sufferings upon others."

The world, however, is not yet convinced. While China believes it is regaining its rightful position as a great nation after a century of "humiliation," skeptics see worrisome signs that China, despite its pious denials, aims to dominate Asia. The reality is probably somewhere in between.

The emergence of the People's Republic of China as a major world power has occurred with remarkable speed. In 1978, the year the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping initiated economic reforms, China was a very weak country, a land of steam locomotives that did a minuscule $19 billion in trade with the outside world. In 1998, China expects to do $345 billion in trade and is on course to overtake the United States as the world's largest economy in as few as 20 years, according to the Economist.

Impressive ascension

As impressive as China's ascension has been, its power must be kept in perspective. While much attention has been paid to China's high economic growth rate, less obvious to outsiders is its hemorrhaging banking system, grossly inefficient state-owned enterprises, and still very low per-capita income. Militarily, despite the recent purchase of some advanced systems, the People's Liberation Army still lacks significant power-projection capabilities.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party has lost much of its ideological legitimacy and the government is dealing with unprecedented problems of labor unrest, mass internal migration, and sporadically violent separatist movements, especially among China's Muslim minority.

China, then, is neither a monolithic threat nor a completely benign power. At times China acts as a responsible global citizen. Although the PRC often takes an aloof posture in the United Nations, it has used its Security Council veto only once since 1981. China maintains an excellent record of on-time repayment of its World Bank loans and has given $4 billion to the IMF to help its neighbors overcome the Asian financial crisis.

China is a member of most arms-control regimes and recently ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention and has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. More concretely, China has helped U.S. efforts to maintain stability on the Korean peninsula by participating in the four-party talks with the United States, North Korea, and South Korea.

However, at other times, China seems to confirm the world's worst suspicions about its intentions. While China may be good about signing weapons control agreements, China has provided nuclear and missile technology to countries like Iran and Pakistan. While China acts as a force for stability in Korea, it has done the opposite in the South China Sea, where it has seized disputed islands claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.

In July 1995 and again in March 1996, China disrupted international shipping and air routes when it test-fired missiles into waters just off Taiwan--a bit of saber rattling meant to warn the island against pursuing independence from China.

Strategic and moral dilemmas

The debate over how to deal with China is much more complex than simply isolation versus engagement. Rather, the global community is trying to find ways to encourage and reward "China the aspiring global citizen" while avoiding any appeasement of "China the brutal dictatorship." This is a problem that inevitably leads to tough strategic and moral dilemmas.

In the international community at large, the issue of whether or not to trade with China is probably the least controversial.

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