At 60, China seeks greater global role

BEIJING Wed Sep 30, 2009 5:16am EDT

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese leaders have told their diplomats to seek greater political and economic influence, changing tack from the low profile they relied on for decades to allay foreign concerns about the country's growing might.

China's new status found voice in last year's Beijing Olympics was bolstered by its role in fighting the global financial crisis and will be cemented on Thursday with the 60th birthday of the People's Republic.

President Hu Jintao earlier this year publicly urged ambassadors to give China a more powerful international presence.

His speech marked a firm step away from former leader Deng Xiaoping's slogan "conceal brilliance, cultivate obscurity," which China has followed for 20 years, downplaying its economic renaissance and keeping a modest international profile.

"Work hard to make our country more politically influential, more economically competitive, build a more congenial image and make it more morally inspiring," Hu told the July meeting.

The new-found confidence comes at a time when there are both calls from abroad for Beijing to play a more active international role, and fear in the West of how it could alter the world order.

But while a more assertive China is likely to be a permanent feature on the global stage, the government has little appetite for outright confrontation and there are limits to its overseas ambitions, which are outweighed by homegrown challenges.

The domestic pressures that dog China's ruling Communist party include a yawning rich-poor gap, sluggish consumption, widespread corruption and massive environmental degradation.

This unsteady combination of rising international standing and enduring domestic worries means that, even on the cusp of the "new China's" 60th anniversary, a longstanding ambivalence about superpower status will not soon go away.

"I see China as a country that remains very preoccupied with domestic problems and sees its greatest challenges and threats within China," said Susan Shirk, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and former senior U.S. diplomat.

"Because they are so preoccupied with domestic issues, they do feel they want to avoid diplomatic conflicts at all costs, and are doing everything they can to avoid clashes.

STILL A LEARNER?

International relations experts said Hu has been consolidating a trend that naturally flows from decades of booming economic growth, and his July speech built on earlier calls for a more active international role.

"(This speech) does not mean that Beijing is getting more ambitious," said Zhu Feng, Deputy Director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University.

"Is there any policy alternative for China, apart from increasing our international clout? But we are still a learner, still have to learn a lot to become a great power."

The shift to a new world order in which emerging economies are more relevant was highlighted at the meeting of the Group of 20 earlier this month, when the mix of developed and developing nations was made top coordinating body on global economic issues.

But paradoxically, Beijing often flexes its influence to fend off demands from other countries by stressing, time and again, that China remains a developing country, hobbled by poverty.

Western critics sometimes fail to understand the extent of domestic burdens for a nation that has huge global economic sway but relatively low per-capita income and serious imbalances created by years of relying on heavily export-led growth.

"Viewing China as a threat merely because it is big and its economy is growing so fast is a major misperception -- but therefore a major challenge for Beijing," Shirk said.

Beijing's appetite for leadership in areas that threaten to impinge on domestic goals will be limited.

"Especially in trade, environment and climate change areas, Western expectations will always go ahead of China's willingness and capability," said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

One particularly divisive issue is China's ties with countries such as Sudan, Myanmar, Iran and North Korea, many of which are resource rich but shunned and sanctioned by Western nations for human rights abuses or nuclear ambitions.

The West would like to see less business and more cajoling being done by Beijing, but China has long been averse to sanctions except as a last resort.

It says economic ties are no one else's business and has long insisted that it sticks to a doctrine of "non-interference" in other nations' affairs, in part because it does not want the likes of the United States criticizing its behavior or policies.

Critics who see more sinister motives in Beijing's dalliances with pariah regimes and its flexing of its economic muscle have been further unnerved by its ambitious military modernization.

But analysts say that while Beijing's self-confidence is rising, the leadership's domestic focus and bruising memories of decades of unrest and civil war last century mean there is little risk of assertiveness spilling over into conflict.

"China always highlights the peaceful rise," said Peking University's Zhu. "There is no option for a non-peaceful rise.

(Editing by Chris Buckley and Nick Macfie)

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