By Zhu Feng
As China's influence grows, other countries are waiting to see
what kind of foreign policies it will adopt and to what extent they
will change regional and global politics.
Will China use its growing international influence to explore
greater diplomatic space to create more opportunities for its
national revitalization and sustainable economic growth? Or will
China continue to lay low so as not to give the rest of the world
the impression that it will pursue an expansionist strategy?
The history of international relations has witnessed the rise of
major powers of different stripes. China's rise as a major power is
multi-dimensional and includes the build-up of its soft
To borrow a concept from US expert on China affairs Harry
Harding, the build-up of "soft strength" represents a process that
is sustainable and internationally significant in foreign
Proof of this can be found in world history. The rise of Great
Britain brought the world the industrial revolution and individual
rights; the rise of the United States gave the world the idea of
human rights and free competition; the rise of the Soviet Union
helped the spread of communism.
Today, despite the West's criticism of China's political system,
the country has become one of the places that many young Westerners
see as most attractive to live and work. Over the past two decades,
China has followed its own path of development with a fast pace of
Though the country's economic growth may not be of universal
significance, its approach to economic growth and its systematic
transformation has shown the world its unique Chinese charm.
Chinese charm is an important way for China to spread its
international influence. The development of this influence is the
result of several factors: The growth of China's share of the world
economy is the basis for the country's economic influence. China's
flexible, self-disciplined and cooperative foreign strategy has
created a good external environment for its development.
Of major importance, international realities facilitate the rise
of the China factor. The world today is a uni-polar system. The
United States as the sole superpower is playing an interventionist
Its military alliances with other countries as well as massive
military presence worldwide give it overall leadership in world
affairs. With the added advantage of English as an international
language and the superior position the US and other Western nations
enjoy in international media, information and values, it is
difficult for the US to conscientiously resist the lure of super
In a way, the US uni-polar hegemony constitutes both a
constraining factor to China's rise and a valuable opportunity to
expand its international influence. The international sentiment
that welcomes China's rise as a counterbalance to US hegemony helps
China to increase its influence.
Analysis of China's international influence shows that the
country's growing strength is not the only contributing factor to
its rising influence. As international influence comes from a
country's position in the world power structure as well as its own
strength, China's rise has enabled the country to lead discussions
in international affairs, but not the ability to influence regional
let alone global order.
Since 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the
multi-power structure has undergone significant changes, with
China's rise apparently the most historically significant.
Meanwhile, Russia has managed to stop the downward slide of its
overall strategic influence. India has become an indispensable
country in the multi-power structure, a major development for a
country not even considered among the major powers a decade
However, the changes in the multi-power structure have not
substantially altered the basic distribution of power in world
politics. In the next 20 years, Europe, Japan and the US will
maintain the present order of national strength. China and India
will probably narrow the gap between their strengths and that of
the US, but not so much as to change the existing distribution of
The West is currently circulating the point of view that economy
determines everything, with the expectation that China will become
a superpower in 15 to 20 years' time. But, even if there's some
truth to this, China's future economic indicators will not be
strong enough to substantially change the world's distribution of
The Cold War era bipolar match-up between the US and Soviet
Union was not determined by economic strength alone but by their
ability to project their power globally and the substantial threat
their strategic strike capabilities posed for each other.
The development of China's international influence not only
depends on attaining major power status and capability but also on
the international relations system created along with its rise.
China's foreign policy has shown the world it is a rising major
power, but not one that tends to be a challenger or disgruntled
nation to the world order.
On the contrary, China's rise is capable of abandoning the
traditional formula of rising powers' shaking the world order.
China's rise can represent the emergence of an even stronger
constructive power in world politics.
During this process, the most important thing is not which class
of country China has become but what type of nation.
In the past, major powers assessed national security by the
number of aircraft carriers, war planes and nuclear warheads they
had in their fight for material interests and national
This practice not only turned the process of expanding
international influence into a country's strategic expansion but
also mutated the development of its domestic economy with
overemphasis on the growth of the arms industry and related
Today, rising China puts greater emphasis on winning support
from the international community when making strategic and policy
decisions representing the common interest of most countries.
We should avoid negative factors that could hurt, weaken or
obstruct the growth of China's international influence.
To do so we need to give priority to participating in the world
order to raise China's international influence, to adherence to
international rules, and to the expansion of win-win approaches in
The future development of China will to a considerable extent
depend on whether we can form and nurture a national consensus on
the type of powerful China we want to build.
The author is a professor at the School of International
Studies, Peking University.
(China Daily May 31, 2007)