Recent tensions between China and its smaller neighbors over territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea is seen by many as a sign of aggression as an emerging power. Will China be another colonialist, imperialist or a benevolent dictator?

Clarence Chua caught up with Dr Martin Jacques, the best-selling author of “When China Rules the World,” in Kuala Lumpur recently to find out more about the Middle Kingdom and its growing ambition.

China is the most populous nation and has overtaken Japan as the second largest economy in the world. But is China a superpower that could rival the United States?

“Definitely not. China is at the beginning of becoming a global power but in that sense it’s still a long way behind the United States. Economically it is still not strong enough. It’s still a developing country. Its foreign policy is not yet reached the point of, sort of comprehensiveness. Of course, in military terms, China is very very pale shadow of the United States.”

So when will China be a super power?

“In a comprehensive sense it’s not just about economics. It’s about economics, it’s about politics, it’s about culture, it’s about moral influence, it’s about, to some extent, military capacity as well. In that rounded sense of the term, not less than 20 years maybe more.”

And if and when it becomes a superpower, will China behave like the US?

“It is wrong to think that China, as it grows, would be like a clone of the US. In particular I don’t expect, in a military fashion, the Chinese to throw their weight around the world. Why? Because China has never thrown its weight around the world and I don’t expect it to do it now. Where as the American, in line with the European tradition have and continue to throw their weight around the world.”

China is seen as the aggressor in its standoff with Japan over the Daiyu islands in the East Sea also with the Philippines and Vietnam over the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea.

But Dr Jacques claim that this is not a sign of China’s aggression in the region.

“The two issues are very different. The East China Sea dispute with Japan is over laden with history. It’s at the end of the day the feeling of the Chinese towards Japan because of what the Japanese did during the last war and the Japanese have never apologized in any proper sense of the term and so for the Chinese it’s a continuous profound sense of resentment.

The South China Sea is more complicated. Although there is a dispute over the five countries, only two of it are active players on it, namely Vietnam and the Philippines. And I think that the Philippines are being egg on by the US. There is a long history of problems between China and Vietnam, I don’t think it sort of fair to say that the Chinese are the ones being aggressive”.

However Dr Jacques say that the pre-occupation of the US in the Middle East in the last decade or so has seen China’s influence grow bigger in the region, especially when it lends more money to developing countries than the World Bank.

“The Chinese aid is more generous and better. The Chinese does not only offer very low interest loans but they also bring with them a great competency in infrastructure. They recognize the importance of infrastructure that Western countries have been historically poor at and continually to be poor at is giving that broader help. The Chinese deal is generally better.”

But what about accusations that the Chinese are out to exploit resource rich countries, especially in Africa?

“The Chinese obviously want the natural resources because they are naturally poor in resources like Japan. But actually so far if you look at the situations in Africa, there’s been a huge welcome in this trading relationship. The African growth rate has gone up so much is due to the China factor. The whole relationship with China has raised the prices of their raw materials. Of course in a colonial situation they have no control over that and a significant amount of aid is to help them develop their industries so there is no question that the Chinese record in relation to African countries so far has been much superior to what happened in the European tradition.”

– Clarence Chua