- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2003

CHONGQING, China — The world’s most populous country is advancing so quickly that its economy could soon be overtaking those in the West, with repercussions sure to shake the world order.

Perched on a rocky promontory high above the Yangtze River, this city is the West’s worst nightmare of China: big, dirty, industrious — and almost unknown.

Sparkling new office blocks hang in the waterfront mist over crumbling, reeking Soviet-style housing. Building sites, shopping centers and a myriad of tiny shops and stalls selling cheap clothes and trinkets to the city’s 8 million inhabitants all point to a new economic dynamism.

It is a pattern repeated all over China, which now has the fastest growth of any major country in the world, at more than 9 percent per year.

Just a few months ago, China-watchers wondered whether this success story could continue amid the uncertainty caused by the arrival of a new leadership under President Hu Jintao, who took power a year ago this week, and the effect of the virus that causes severe, acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

But economic growth has speeded up.

At current rates, what was once a communist basket case will, in two decades, overtake not only Britain and France but also Germany and Japan to join the United States at the top of the international wealth rankings.

Analysts wonder whether the world is ready. “There are global repercussions in the emergence of China,” said one senior diplomat. “It is going to take a lot of adjustment to accommodate it.”

The U.S. Congress has suddenly noticed that America is running a trade deficit with China of $100 billion a year, and is considering a bill to slap a 28 percent tariff on Chinese imports.

As with Washington’s fears of the resurgence of Japan in the 1980s, what starts with the economy quickly turns to military and diplomatic threats — whether America and its allies can cling to their undisputed world leadership.

China has a standing army of 2.3 million and a grievance that for two centuries the country has not been accorded the respect it deserves.

According to Yu Maochun, an associate professor of East Asia and military history at the U.S. Naval Academy, underneath the apparent westernization and integration into the world, an aggressive streak still lurks. While China claims to have no expansionist intentions, it regards large areas of East Asia as its historic sphere of influence.

“No country in the world displays a more fanatic quest for international respect than China,” Mr. Yu said. “And such a quest for greatness is being pursued with a vengeance that can be potentially a breeding ground for ultranationalism.”

At present, the official view in Britain and America is that as China becomes more prosperous, it becomes more relaxed and less of a threat.

But recent meetings of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) gave even establishment figures pause for thought.

First, there were China’s ambitious proposals, including a free-trade zone to cover more than half the world’s population, from India eastward. Then there was the rousing reception given to Mr. Hu at the APEC meeting in Bangkok, where everyone was eager to win the favor of the next economic giant.

With America seemingly stuck in the Middle Eastern mire, it was a telling moment. “I have … never seen a time when the United States is so distracted from the [Asia-Pacific] region,” said Ernest Bower, president of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council.

In contrast, he said, “China is focused on the region like a laser beam.”

But Mr. Hu’s planned decade in power will not be smooth sailing. It is not just the China Threat Theory he has to disprove, but the China Collapse Theory. According to this, most pithily described in 2001 by Gordon Chang, a Chinese-American lawyer, in his book “The Coming Collapse of China,” that country has over-reached itself.

Its economy is overheating, its banks are heavily indebted, yet any correction would unleash a revolutionary wave of discontent. Tens of millions of workers are being laid off from state-owned firms. A banking crisis plus an economic downturn could challenge not only China’s renaissance, but even the rule of the Communist Party.

That might lead to a peaceful evolution into a democratic society — or prompt a face-saving, nationalistic reaction such as an attack to bring Taiwan back into the motherland.

It is a prediction that has stubbornly failed to come true.

Even so, Mr. Chang is not optimistic. “China’s authoritarian state poses a challenge, whether the country succeeds or not economically,” he said. “If it succeeds, Chinese leaders will seek to shape the world in ways that benefit them.

“I think that a failing China is the more likely. In the case of a weak China, the risk of military misadventure is high.”


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