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Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator Frank Ching.
Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator Frank Ching.

Frank Ching

China to U.S.: We're also No. 1 Add to ...

In a dramatic challenge, Beijing has demanded that Washington recognize it as a world power, not a regional one.

"Is U.S. ready to recognize China as world power?" asked the headline over a major commentary in the official People's Daily. The article quoted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as saying that, without the participation of both China and the U.S., global problems can't be solved.

The challenge was well-timed, coming just as China was holding large-scale naval exercises while making expansionist claims over the entire South China Sea as its territorial waters.

A Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman, in response to Ms. Clinton's remarks at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi in which she rejected sweeping claims by any country to the South China Sea, declared that Beijing had "indisputable sovereignty" over islands in the South China Sea and the surrounding waters.

And Defence Minister Liang Guanglie, speaking on the 83rd anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army, said China's armed forces would continue to enhance their capabilities and military readiness to safeguard Chinese sovereignty and security.

The Chinese demand also coincided with an announcement by Yi Gang, deputy governor of the central bank, that China has overtaken Japan as the world's second-largest economy.

But Beijing still seems unsure of its role as a world power. Another People's Daily article complained, "Westerners burden China with responsibility."

"For a long time," the article said, "some Westerners have set forth a basic definition for China's development: Not to let China rebuild a set order and in the meanwhile to prevent China from sabotaging the existing system. And the best solution is to let China assume more responsibility in maintaining the existing system."

It continued: "To put it bluntly, Westerners very much want to shirk off their burden and let people of China carry for them. This is particularly true to the United States and its intention is obvious due to the global financial crisis and its own decline in strength."

When China objected to any deployment of the aircraft carrier George Washington in the Yellow Sea during recent U.S.-South Korean naval exercises, a Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell, responded: "Obviously [the Chinese]are a regional power and a country … whose opinion we respect and consider."

While the term "regional power" seems to trip off the tongue of American officials when speaking of China, it's not one that Chinese officials use to describe themselves. In fact, China has never seen itself as a regional power. Its very name, Zhongguo (often translated as Middle Kingdom), denotes that it's the centre of the world. Another word the Chinese use is Tianxia, or "all under heaven" - that is, the whole world. Thus, the Chinese never saw themselves as being confined to one narrow corner of the world.

Defeat at the hands of "foreign barbarians" in the Opium Wars of the 19th century launched a "century of humiliation," including ceding territory to foreigners, the opening up of treaty ports at gunpoint and allowing foreigners to be exempt from Chinese law, a concept known as extraterritoriality.

But Chinese have never accepted the "century of humiliation" as the norm. Instead, as the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping taught them, they were to "hide their capabilities" and "bide their time."

Now, Beijing evidently feels its time has come. But China shouldn't follow in the footsteps of previous world powers. It's right to expect respect, but it must understand that responsibility goes along with the job. And it must not demand deference.

Frank Ching, a Hong Kong-based writer, is author of China: The Truth About Its Human Rights Record .

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