Great power" is a vague term, but China deserves it by any measure: the extent and strategic location of its territory, the size and dynamism of its population, the value and growth rate of its economy, the massive size of its share of global trade, and the strength of its military. China has become one of a small number of countries that have significant national interests in every part of the world and that command the attention, whether willingly or grudgingly, of every other country and every international organization. And perhaps most important, China is the only country widely seen as a possible threat to U.S. predominance. Indeed, China's rise has led to fears that the country will soon overwhelm its neighbors and one day supplant the United States as a global hegemon.
But widespread perceptions of China as an aggressive, expansionist power are off base. Although China's relative power has grown significantly in recent decades, the main tasks of Chinese foreign policy are defensive and have not changed much since the Cold War era: to blunt destabilizing influences from abroad, to avoid territorial losses, to reduce its neighbors' suspicions, and to sustain economic growth. What has changed in the past two decades is that China is now so deeply integrated into the world economic system that its internal and regional priorities have become part of a larger quest: to define a global role that serves Chinese interests but also wins acceptance from other powers.
Chief among those powers, of course, is the United States, and managing the fraught U.S.-Chinese relationship is Beijing's foremost foreign policy challenge. And just as Americans wonder whether China's rise is good for U.S. interests or represents a looming threat, Chinese policymakers puzzle over whether the United States intends to use its power to help or hurt China.
Americans sometimes view the Chinese state as inscrutable. But given the way that power is divided in the U.S. political system and the
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