I've read several articles recently, all by American authors, including one from The Washington Post, suggesting that China is greatly feared in the West, but especially in the United States, because of its perceived military might and growing economic clout. The authors don't really seem to be arguing a specific point, but do convey a sense of angst and fear over the motives of the largest communist nation on earth. Are their fears misplaced? Is there any basis or precedent that would justify these fears?
China is greatly misunderstood by many people in the West today. In fact, it may be the most misunderstood nation. To properly understand China one must examine the country's past, consider the historical events that shaped its thinking and then draw reasonable conclusions based on those facts.
Important events that shaped China's perception of foreigners were the Opium Wars, wars fought against Britain, the Battle of Peking, a 'rescue' effort launched by the Eight Nation Alliance that greatly humiliated the Chinese people, and the Second World War, when the Empire of Japan brought great destruction and sorrow to China. Years later, the Cultural Revolution further complicated matters by instilling a sense of mistrust and aversion for foreign ideas and practices. So from about 1839 to 1945, China was awash with conflicts and disasters perpetrated by non-Chinese peoples intent on having their own way with the Chinese nation.
It's reasonably safe to assume then that China is certainly not interested in more conflict. What country, after experiencing roughly 100 years of terrible violence, bloodshed and suffering, would then turn around and cause further anguish to its population through brash declarations of war?
China only seeks to secure its borders and live in peace. Reports in the U.S. news that paint an 'evil' China hell bent on domination and impromptu saber rattling from American hawks is entirely unwarranted. China's attempts to modernize its military is an extension of its mistrust of external influences - and nothing else.
People in the West are fond of talking about change in China, specifically democratic change. While this sentiment is admirable, it isn't possible or practical at the moment. The demands made by Western powers that China institute sweeping democratic reforms would utterly destabilize the country. For democratic change to take place, there first needs to be a majority of reform-minded politicians in power (the possible) who are willing to introduce reforms at a pace the humble people of China can understand (the practical). After all, what's the point of starting something no one can quite grasp?
Of all the troubles plaguing China, I'm convinced that her greatest challenge is overcoming graft. Corruption has been promoted, accepted and tolerated for much too long. It's a shameful practice found in every nation on earth, but China's population greatly magnifies the destructive nature of the practice. This is one area where reform is desperately needed, but instituting a mass cull on graft would only work if it began from the top.
Wen Jiabao, or Grandpa Wen as he's affectionately known, is a willing reformer I believe, but only represents a minority of the current establishment that would institute change. More than that, Premier Wen is someone who cares about the marginalized of society and understands the havoc an increasing wealth disparity creates.
Much is being spoken of Xi Jinping in the press right now. One news article even predicts him to be a mould breaker. In China politics it's much too early to tell, but as a princeling Mr. Xi is unlikely to deviate from protocol.