China wants credit as 'world player' from US

Wednesday, August 4, 2010
By Frank Ching

In a dramatic challenge, China has demanded that the United States recognize it as a world power and not, as it has in the past, relegated the country to the role of a regional power.

“Is U.S. ready to recognize China as world power?” asked the headline over a major commentary in the official People's Daily newspaper. The commentary appeared in both the print and online editions, in both Chinese and English.

The article quoted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has urged China to play a greater role in solving the world's economic, environmental and political problems, saying that without the participation of both China and the United States, global problems could not be solved.

The call on the United States to recognize China as a world power was well timed. It came just as China was holding large-scale naval exercises while making expansionist claims over the entire South China Sea as its territorial waters.

Rebutting Secretary Clinton's remarks at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, where she rejected sweeping claims by any country to the South China Sea, China's Defense Ministry spokesman declared Beijing had “indisputable sovereignty” over islands in the South China Sea and the surrounding waters.

And Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, speaking on the 83rd anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army, said China's armed forces would continue to enhance their capabilities and military readiness to safeguard sovereignty, security and development of the nation.

China's demand for recognition as a world power coincided with the holding of large-scale military exercises, involving ships, submarines and combat aircraft, just as the United States and South Korea were holding naval exercises off the Korean Peninsula.

Beijing had warned Washington not to send the aircraft carrier U.S.S. George Washington into the Yellow Sea, saying that would be a threat to China. The United States ultimately responded by keeping it on the eastern side of the Korean Peninsula.

The Chinese demand also coincided with an announcement by Yi Gang, deputy central bank governor, that China has overtaken Japan as the world's second-largest economy.

China is expected to overtake the United States and becomes the world's largest economy in about 15 years.

However, China still seemed unsure of its role as a world power. Another People's Daily article complained, “Westerners burden China with responsibility.”

“For a long time,” the article said, “some Westerners have set forth a basic definition for China's development: Not to let China rebuild a set order and in the meanwhile to prevent China from sabotaging the existing system. And the best solution is to let China assume more responsibility in maintaining the existing system.”

It continued: “To put it bluntly, Westerners very much want to shirk off their burden and let people of China carry for them. This is particularly true to the United States and its intention is obvious due to the global financial crisis and its own decline in strength.”

When China objected to the George Washington appearing in the Yellow Sea, a Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell, responded: “Obviously [the Chinese] are a regional power and a country, whose opinion we respect and consider.”

While the term “regional power” seems to trip off the tongue of American officials when speaking of China, it is not a term that Chinese officials normally use to describe themselves.

In fact, historically, China has never seen itself as a regional power. China's very name, Zhongguo, which is often translated as Middle Kingdom, denotes that it is the center of the world. In fact, another word the Chinese use is Tianxia, or “all under heaven,” that is, the whole world.

Thus, the Chinese historically have had a broad view and did not see themselves, and their influence, as confined to one narrow corner of the world.

Defeat at the hands of “foreign barbarians” in the Opium War in the 19th century launched a “century of humiliation,” including ceding territory to foreigners, opening up of treaty ports at gunpoint and allowing foreigners to be exempt from Chinese law, a concept known as extraterritoriality.

But Chinese have never accepted the “century of humiliation” as the norm. Instead, as the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping taught them, they were to “hide their capabilities” and “bide their time.”

Now, China evidently feels that its time has come. But China should not follow in the footsteps of previous world powers. It is right to expect respect but understand that responsibility goes along with the job. And it must not demand deference.

Frank Ching can be reached at Frank.ching@gmail.com

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