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

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"China does not want to, nor will China, challenge the international order or challenge other countries," insisted Mr. Wang, pointing to the white paper declaration that China has "broken away from the traditional pattern where a rising power was bound to seek hegemony."

Not everyone believes this, even in China. "Humanity is making progress," argues Wang Xiaodong, a prominent nationalist ideologue whose views are proving increasingly influential among the Chinese public, "but not so much that China will be unique in human history. The idea that China will develop its power but not use it is diplomatic verbiage."

China's Southeast Asian neighbors might well agree. Until earlier this year Beijing had been unusually assertive in pushing its competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, worrying smaller nations. But the way it has eased off in recent months in the face of complaints suggests it cannot do just as it likes.

"China tests the water constantly, and when they don't get what they want they tend to back down," says Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "As they develop their military capacities, they have to be very careful not to use them in ways that scare the neighbors."

The Chinese government's need to explain itself stems partly from the system's chronic secrecy: Outsiders do not even know when the ruling Standing Committee of the Communist Party's Politburo meets, let alone how its nine members reach decisions or what those decisions are.

At the same time, some observers suggest, there is not always a coherent answer to the question of why China does what it does. The Chinese government is not a monolithic force; pressure groups and cliques from the military to provincial governments have their own interests and can sometimes push aspects of foreign policy their way.

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