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The rise of an economic superpower: What does China want?

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"We'd like to be an equal partner on the world stage, and we want the Chinese people to enjoy prosperity," says Wu Jianmin, a former ambassador to Paris and now an adviser to the Foreign Ministry. "For that, international cooperation is indispensable; China is not so arrogant as to say that it's our turn now to run the world our way."

Rarely in its history has China looked very hard or long at the rest of the world. Admiral Zheng He led exploratory fleets as far as Africa in the 15th century, but subsequent emperors were content to sit on the throne of the Middle Kingdom, at the center of their universe, and focus on their own lands. China spent a hundred years of submission to Western powers following its defeat in the 19th-century Opium Wars, and it was mired in decades of disruption before and after Mao Zedong's 1949 Communist takeover.

Only with its newfound wealth has Beijing found itself with a major role on the world stage.

"It's a very big challenge to restructure our relations with the world while retaining its trust," worries Zhu Feng, a professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University.

So, as China rises, its leaders are going out of their way to try to reassure the world that their success is, in a favorite official phrase, a "win-win" prospect for everybody. So nervous were policy-makers here about upsetting foreigners that they scotched their original formulation of China's future – "peaceful rise" – as too threatening. Instead they settled on "peaceful development."

Last month the government issued a 32-page white paper full of comforting words explaining what it wants the world to understand by that phrase.

"There have been misunderstandings about China's foreign policy," said Wang Yajun, the Communist Party's top foreign-policy wonk, presenting the document to the press. "There have indeed been suspicions."

The white paper's key message is that China threatens no one, that its rise will contribute to world peace, and that "the central goal of China's diplomacy is to create a peaceful and stable international environment for its development. China could become strong in the future. Yet peace will remain critical for its development, and China has no reason to deviate from the path of peaceful development."

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