The nation's international role has gone through three major transformations since the founding of New China.
From the 1950s to the late 60s, the country remained outside the world's multilateral establishments. China initially participated in international systems during the late 70s and 80s, and gradually began to be of strategic importance because it was regarded as an important chip by the two competing superpowers in the international arena.
But its inferior international status did not change in the pervasive rivalry between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
Since the 1990s, the nation has undergone a period of extensive participation in international arrangements.
Due to its increasing international influence, China has been seen more and more as a co-operative partner, a rival or a potential threat.
With its rise in power, it is natural China's international role has experienced changes in the early 21st century.
The country is now rapidly emerging as an influential power with an ever-louder voice in international and regional affairs from being an extremely backward developing nation.
It is now becoming an active participant in and reformer of international systems from its past position as a bystander.
The nation is also evolving from being a lesser member to a player to which the international community has paid more and more attention.
It is impossible for China, with today's influence, to remain aloof from the interwoven web of contradictions and conflicts between big powers.
Along with transformations in China's international role are continuous changes in the country's international image. Its security and developmental environment, and foreign policy, have also been significantly affected as a result of these transformations.
For a time, China once appeared as a nation that did not fear ghosts or believe in evil. Its alignment with the former Soviet Union to oppose the United States in the 1950s, its slogan to overthrow the American imperialist, the Soviet Revisionist and all reactionary forces in the 60s, and its opposition to the former Soviet Union in co-operation with the United States in the 70s, all contributed to such an image at that time.
Tightly shrouded by a mysterious cloak, China was also once considered by the outside world as a closed or insulated country.
Some countries also forced such descriptions upon China as "bellicose" and "belligerent."
But in the 1980s, China began to pursue an independent foreign policy of peace. Precisely because of its active efforts to push for reform and opening-up domestically and vigorously advocate peace and development as the theme of the times globally, the nation has engraved upon the international community a peaceful image since the 1980s. Its security environment also improved in the latter stages of the Cold War.
The end of the 20th century saw a decade of rapid economic development. The 90s was also the decade that saw the country's international status ascending continuously.
But during this period the "China threat" notion began to emerge and spread across the world.
Some countries disseminated it out of evil political intentions and some out of worries and misgivings about China's rapid development, which was regarded as a huge pressure.
To eradicate unnecessary worries and misgivings, China carried out in-depth diplomatic work and took concrete measures in an effort to raise its diplomatic stature and improve its international standing.
In the mid-1990s, the country robustly advocated a new security concept, with "mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and co-ordination" as the core, and succeeded in establishing a new image for itself in the international community.
Entering the 21st century, the international community has paid more heed to China. Indeed, 2005 was even called the "year of China's rise" by some. It was the year the country raised the "harmonious world" idea at international events.
As an extension of its internal policy, the idea demonstrates China's diplomatic confidence and maturity. It also heralded directions for the country's new security concept.
Its creation also indicated China's increasing awareness of acting as a responsible large country and the country's important step to improve its security and developmental environment.
At the moment, there are still many factors that affect China's diplomacy. Thus, the nation should comprehensively consider all these factors while mapping out its foreign policy.
In the context of globalization, the security concept with co-operation at its core has increasingly been etched in people's hearts. At the same time, unilateralist and hegemonic acts and power politics still run rampant in the international community.
On the one hand, China's reform and opening-up have continuously deepened and its economic activities have continued on the track of international practices. On the other hand, various contradictions are unfolding in the country during this transitional period.
China should carefully consider how to best balance different contradictions and interests while arranging its foreign activities.
It should not only bear in mind national growth and unity and other fundamental interests, such as national security and sovereignty, but should also consider how to push forward all-round opening to the outside to keep pace with international practices.
It should not only be actively involved in international bodies, but should also try to avoid its independent and self-reliant characters being retarded by multilateral arrangements.
It should not only adapt itself to globalization and carry out extensive multilateral co-operation in the economic and security fields, but should also try to avoid this happening at the expense of its sovereignty and security.
In sum, a China for the 21st century will be constrained by various complicated factors and should try to balance them while arranging its diplomacy.
This means China should cling to a median line with a more rational mentality.
The author is a professor at the Institute of Strategic Studies under the University of National Defence. The article was originally published in the Global Times.
(China Daily January 17, 2006)