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Is China Ready to be the Next Superpower?

New America Media, Commentary, George Koo Posted: Oct 09, 2009

Editors Note: Chinas economic progress, diplomatic clout and now its attempt to tackle environmental problems have led many China watchers to anoint it the new superpower. NAM contributor George Koo says China still needs something more.

China has just concluded a national celebration widely seen on TV and on-line. The scope and grandeur of the parade down the Avenue of Eternal Peace (Chang An Jie) left foreign observers impresses and the people of China proud.

The message seems to be that China has arrived as a nation to be reckoned with. Since the 2008 Olympics, there have 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?

China seems to have survived the global economic downturn in far better shape than anyone else. While all the other major economies followed in Americas footsteps into the recession, China merely grew less rapidly than before.

When American consumers were abruptly confronted with their looming debt and stopped buying, Chinas economy with its export-driven dependency was expected to suffer terrible withdrawal. But Chinas 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 its own economic stimulus package to ward off economic decline, instead of bailing out sick banks and resuscitating auto industry on life support.

Chinas breakneck growth has come with an environmental price tag. China has surpassed the U.S. as the largest emitter of greenhouse 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. Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times that, in the last 18 months, Red China decided to become Green China.

International relations observers have reported on Chinas increased use of soft power in broadening its influence in the international arena, especially in Africa and Latin America. China not only seems to be acting as a responsible stakeholder, but it is also exercising effective leadership with many of the Third World nations.

After eight years of demanding American unilateralism, many around the world welcome Chinas diplomacy as a much-needed counter balance to the American hegemony.

Orville Schell, a longtime China watcher, recently observed that unless the U.S. gets its act together, it will become increasingly obvious that democratic capitalism cannot compete with todays China.

So does this mean that China is ready to take over world leadership from the U.S.?

Many in Chinas blogosphere seem ready to accept this idea. I think it is quite premature. Chinas GDP is merely one-third of the U.S. and per capita GDP less than one-tenth. Furthermore, Chinas 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 admired and aspired to.

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

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

More importantly, Chinas 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 criticism, fairly rendered or not, with equanimity and welcomes the critic to visit China for further discourse is when China becomes the next superpower.

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