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

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"When you see a Chinese come into your office you prepare yourself for a fight," he says. "You are rarely happy at the end of negotiations. They don't show respect or politeness, and there is no feeling," he complains, adding that he rarely builds with Chinese clients the sort of personal relations he enjoys with Congolese or Western businessmen.

The Chinese are sharp, though, and Congo's traditional Western partners feel a little threatened by them, especially in light of Chinese firms' close relationship with the Congolese government, acknowledges the Western businessman.

"We are aware of their strength," he says. "They are protected; they can drive a car with no plates and no one stops them. You try doing that and see what happens."

Another country keen to keep the China card up its sleeve, especially as its relations with Washington turn sour, is Pakistan, whose leaders have recently been trumpeting the two neighbors' "all weather friendship."

China's efficient work on the ground in Pakistan (see related story on page 29) has earned it a warm welcome: A Pew survey last year found 85 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable view of China, versus only 17 percent who were similarly disposed toward America, Pakistan's major donor.

Pakistanis remember that China has provided arms when Washington refused them in the past, but Beijing appears reluctant to involve itself too deeply in security affairs today: Business is good, and Pakistan is a big market for Chinese electronics, motorbikes, toys, and food, but China's leaders seem cautious about committing too deeply to Islamabad, say ob-servers in Beijing.

On the other side of the world, in Brazil, it's a similar story. China overtook the US as Brazil's largest trade partner in 2009 on the back of huge purchases of oil, soybeans, and iron ore; Brazilian exports to China grew 18-fold between 2000 and 2009.

But "our relationship with China is one of almost only commerce and investment," says Roberto Abdenur, a former Brazilian ambassador to both Beijing and Washington.

"With the United States it's cultural and political – the two countries share many interests that China doesn't," such as the promotion of human rights, democracy, and transparent governance, he adds.

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