Giant aspires to superpower status
By Joe Havely for CNN
China's increased economic power and confidence is spreading to the political arena.
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(CNN) -- China is a sleeping giant, Napoleon once warned. "Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world."
Nearly two centuries later and China is well and truly awake.
In the past, when Wall Street sneezed, the rest of the world caught a cold.
While the United States still sets the pace for global markets, there is a growing awareness that, as China's economy expands rapidly, the balance of power is shifting in its direction.
Take, for example, the impact China's rocketing demand for oil -- up by more than a third in 2004 alone -- is having on global energy prices.
Or in clothing -- according to the World Trade Organization, China is expected to produce more than half the world's textiles by the end of the decade.
Dr Linda Yueh of the London School of Economics (LSE), says the rising influence of the Chinese economy is causing a fundamental rethink of the implications for the world, and for China's neighbors.
"We are living in a world where economic power matters and we have China growing at more than 9 percent a year, while Japan is barely even managing growth of 1 percent," she says.
That rise in economic power and confidence is spreading to the political arena, she says, as has been seen with the recent war of words between China and Japan.
In the space of just 25 years, China has transformed from an inward-looking, communist basket case, to a nation fast becoming one of the most influential in the world.
"The very fact that China is now being invited to G7 meetings indicates just how important it has become to the global economy," says Yueh.
So where is this rising power headed? Is China, as some suggest, set to become the next superpower?
Certainly China already has several badges of superpowerdom stitched to its jersey.
It has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, it is an acknowledged nuclear power and it is one of only three nations capable of independently launching humans into space.
On the economic front, China recently overtook the U.S. as the world's biggest consumer of agricultural and industrial staples such as grain, meat, coal and steel.
Its companies have also begun to match, and in some cases take over, established "old world" giants. One recent example: the buy-up of IBM's PC business by Chinese computer maker Lenovo -- a purchase that ruffled more than a few feathers in the U.S. Congress.
And sometime in the next two decades or so -- projections vary -- China is expected to overtake the United States as the world's largest economy.
"China is certainly growing fast, but it also has a very long way still to go," says the LSE's Yueh.
"In terms of GDP per capita, it still ranks as an early developing country. It only recently passed the $1000 per capita mark, and by its own forecasts it will be 2020 before it passes the level of $3000 per capita -- the mark of a mid-range developing economy."
China is growing so fast, she says, because it can't afford not to. "China's overriding goal is to help its people develop and achieve a higher standard of living."
For the government and the communist party, that is seen as the key to its continued legitimacy.
With a population the size of China's, it is a monumental task. Already the gaping disparity in wealth across the country -- between the booming east coast cities and the still largely underdeveloped interior -- is one of the many internal challenges that the government is now facing.
But being an economic heavyweight does not a superpower make.
"In terms of China's global impact, it is a significant player," says Elizabeth Economy, head of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "But while we are seeing a far more activist China, in terms of its ability to actually lead, it is severely hampered."
Part of the problem, she says, is that the Chinese political system lacks transparency and other traits of good governance needed to build trust.
"Most of China's neighbors are happy for China to buy their produce and act as an engine of the region's growth," she says. "But I don't think anyone wants to see China supplant the U.S. as the regional power."
One notable recent development though -- and an indication of its growing stature -- is China's hosting of the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program.
"Never before has China been interested in playing this kind of role," says Economy, noting that Beijing took the role reluctantly under pressure from the United States.
To date, however, the Korean nuclear talks have shown little sign of success -- and that, says Economy, will be the real measure of China's influence.
"So far," she says, "there's been a lot of guts and not much glory."
On the economic front, Dr Sheng Lijun of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies argues that China is also lacking the mettle of superpowerdom.
"China has certainly proved itself a great production platform," he says, "but not, so far, a platform for invention and creativity.
"China does not create technology, and that's a large part of what defines a superpower."
Given time, that may well change. This, after all, is the country that invented printing and gunpowder -- arguably two of the most influential inventions of all time.
Dr Sheng argues the real issue is that it is not in China's interest to become a superpower.
Reliant on the international economy and sharing borders with 14 other countries, it is more in China's interest to carve itself a position in a coalition of big powers, he says. "For China there are more risks than benefits to becoming a superpower."
That is particularly the case in China's immediate neighborhood, says Dr Sheng, and its often-tense -- although increasingly interdependent -- relationship with Japan.
"In this case it is very clear there are huge benefits if you work together and huge costs if you stab each other in the back," he says.
Looking to relations with the United States, the case for cooperation is much the same. The problem, Dr Sheng says, is one of perception and the potential risk of miscalculation.
"The U.S. tends to judge by capability, rather than intention -- and in the case of China, that could be a costly mistake."
Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations agrees that the Washington-Beijing relationship is prone to flare ups and requires careful management.
Take for example, the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war, or the stand-off that followed the mid-air collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter off the southern Chinese coast.
"We see lots of bluster from the PLA (People's Liberation Army) and the Pentagon," says Economy. "But at the very top levels of government on both sides there is a consistent acknowledgement that this is one of the most important relationships for global stability."
The sticking point, Economy says, is that the two countries have fundamentally different political systems -- and that will prove a constant irritant to the relationship.
One thing is certain, she says.
"China is definitely on an upward trajectory. There's a new player on the scene and it is going to be out there in ways we've never seen before."