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CHALLENGES 2006-2007: China Crouches to Enter Global Arena

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Dec 5 2006 (IPS) - If 2006 established China firmly as the world’s fourth largest economy, it also delivered Beijing the means to discard the late Deng Xiaoping’s maxim that the communist country should not take the lead in international affairs until it has grown economically strong.

This year saw China’s holdings of foreign currency reserves, the yields of fast-growing exports, reach 1 trillion US dollars – a sign of enormous financial clout that is now beginning to spill over into other spheres. More than two decades of solid economic growth, which averaged 10 percent annually, now point at the probability that in the not so distant future – twenty-five years from now according to Citigroup – China would command the world’s largest economy.

As China’s confidence grows in tandem with its economic might, the country’s leaders are also more willing to share the limelight with other world powers and exert more influence in international affairs.

This has found manifestation in several gestures of forward policy such as an increase in the Chinese troop contingent in United Nations peacekeeping operations and Beijing’s willingness to bolster economic and political ties with developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The recent appointment of Margaret Chan, a former Hong Kong civil servant, as the new head of the World Health Organisation – the first Chinese national to lead a UN agency, also heralds the arrival of an era where more and more prominent Chinese voices would be heard at multilateral bodies of global reach.

Until recently, Chinese politics were defined by the need for economic development above all. Having suffered at the hands of foreign powers in the past two centuries, Chinese leaders were determined to right the historical wrongs by transforming the former imperial laggard into a modern, economically strong country.

But the astonishing change in the country’s economic fortunes has forced Beijing to rethink some of its foreign policy tenets and seek more exposure on the world stage to boost its global influence.

China’s willingness to abandon Deng Xiaoping’s admonition of self-restraint in international affairs stems also from the realisation that it could use international bodies for furthering its own diplomatic goals, says Wu Miaofa, researcher at the China Institute of International Studies.

“The current economic and political order is not perfect but we can work with the available international mechanisms and make it more just and reasonable,” he says.

That much was evident when Premier Wen Jiabao announced in September that China was ready to increase its contribution to the international peacekeeping force in Lebanon to 1,000 troops. The proposed increase of troops by more than 800 represented China’s biggest single deployment since Beijing began participating in the UN peacekeeping operations in the late 1980s.

It was also a sign of China’s eagerness to enhance its standing in the conflict-ridden but oil-rich Middle East.

Since it first sent People’s Liberation Army Blue helmets to Cambodia in 1992, China has deployed military or police teams involving some 6,000 people on 15 peacekeeping missions around the world, including Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, Haiti, East Timor and others.

Today China is the largest contributor of peacekeepers among the five members of the United Nations Security Council, according to Wu Miaofa. “We feel there is a responsibility out there to fulfil the expectations of developing countries,” he says. “As the biggest developing country China is taken this upon its shoulders and it is acting accordingly. It is not a surprise that the scope of our UN operations is growing bigger.”

China has also pledged three million dollars to the UN Peace building Fund. Announcing the contribution in September, Chinese Foreign minister Li Zhaoxing said the money was meant to further the interests of developing countries.

Beijing continues to emphasise the need for developing nations to band together and protect their interests in face of globalisation and from the inroads of the industrialised West. These days though China’s initiatives are propelled not by ideology but by efforts to secure natural resources and political influence.

In Africa and Asia, as in many other parts of the developing world, Beijing is providing countries with financial support and diplomatic backing to gain leverage over their emerging markets, while also ensuring that their leaders are closely aligned with China’s interests internationally.

China has so far written off the debt of 31 African countries and given an estimated 5.5 billion dollars in assistance to the world’s poorest continent. Beijing has also pledged 100 million dollars to the Asian Development Fund and the Africa Development Fund.

In Africa, China has now overtaken Britain to become the continent’s third most important trading partner after the United States and France, according to a report, “The New Sinosphere: China in Africa”, published recently by Britains’ Institute for Public Policy Research.

Last month Beijing hosted an ambitious trade, investment and aid summit with the leaders of 48 African countries, at which Chinese leaders pledged to double aid to Africa from its 2006 level by 2009.

But given its insatiable demand for raw materials and natural resources to fuel its industrialisation, China has been accused of neo-colonial political indifference towards the human rights abuses and corruption of African regimes, like Angola, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

And, even as it strives to burnish its reputation as a military power through the expansion of peacekeeping operations, Beijing is facing questions about the purpose of its military build up. The U.S. has warned that the (PLA)’s rapid modernisation had altered the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.

“The outside world has little knowledge of Chinese motivations and decision-making or of key capabilities surrounding the People’s Liberation Army modernisation,” noted the Pentagon annual report in May.

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