Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Is China the next superpower?

    China has just concluded a national celebration widely seen live on TV and for days afterwards on CCTV website. The scope and grandeur of the parade down the Avenue of Eternal Peace (Chang An Jie) left on-site spectators breathless, most foreign observers impressed and the people of China excited and proud.

    The message seems to be that China has arrived as a nation to be reckoned with. Indeed since the successful rendering of the Olympics in August 2008, there has been a stream of increasingly positive commentaries in the West suggesting that China has arrived.

    Some pundits in the West have gone so far as to suggest that China will soon eclipse the U.S. and become the sole hegemonic nation standing. Have these sentiments perhaps exceeded reality?

    Certainly plaudits are coming from many directions.

    China seems to have survived the global economic downturn in far better shape than anyone else. While all the major economies followed the American lead and suffered a drop in GDP, China merely grew less rapidly than before.

    When American consumers were abruptly confronted with their looming debt and stopped buying, China's economy with its export driven dependency was expected to suffer terrible withdrawal. But China's economy turned out to be more resilient than the West anticipated.

    China not only managed to stay out of the economic recession but very skillfully used the economic stimulus package to ward off economic decline. It seemed every dollar for the stimulus actually did just that and not for the purpose of bailing out sick banks and resuscitating auto industry on life support.

    As China grew its economy at breakneck speed, China has surpassed the U.S. as the largest emitter of green house gases. Now it appears that China has also seized the leadership from the U.S. in efforts to rectify the environmental damage and set the country on to the path of going green.

    International relations observers have reported on China's increase in use of soft power and broadening its influence in the international arena, especially in Africa and Latin America. Not only China seems to be acting as a "responsible stakeholder," but exercising effective leadership with much of the third world nations.

    After eight years of demanding American unilateralism, the world welcomes China's diplomacy as a much needed breath of fresh air.

    A longtime China watcher recently observed that unless the U.S. gets it act together, it will become increasingly obvious that democratic capitalism cannot compete with today's China.

    So does this mean that China is ready to take over the world leadership from the U.S.? Many in China's blogosphere seem quite ready to accept this idea. I think it is quite premature. China's GDP is merely one-third of the U.S. and per capita GDP less than one-tenth. Furthermore, China's military might is technologically at least one generation or more behind the U.S.

    China also has yet to develop that aura of a superpower that the U.S. once carried with aplomb. It is something that I would call the dafang-ness of a great power. After WWII, the U.S. had this dafang attribute. America was generous to its friends and former foes, confidently led by example rather than by hectoring and built a political and economic system that others admire and aspired to.

    Since September 11, America basically rejected its former set of values and degenerated into unilateralism internationally and pettiness domestically. While the new administration led by Obama is trying to regain the prestige U.S. used to enjoy, whether he will be able to bring about the change remains to be seen.

    China on the other hand has yet to assume the swagger and confidence of a superpower that win reflexive trust from the international community. Some of the resistance can be attributed to China's detractors living outside of China. Their noisy and visible protests, such as the globe circling Dalai Lama, can exert influence that China has to overcome.

    More importantly China's leadership has not reached the level of self-confidence that they can institute a policy of transparency and openness. Beijing has been moving in that direction but they are not there yet. The world needs to see how policies are made and decisions formulated. The world needs to understand actions or inactions that China undertakes.

    The day China can absorb criticisms, fairly rendered or not, with equanimity and welcomes the critic to visit China for further discourse is when China becomes the next superpower.
An edited version was published by New America Media.

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