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China has launched a public-relations offensive. The publication of a white paper on the country’s “peaceful development” is designed to quiet concerns about China’s growing affluence and how Beijing intends to use the influence that it wields. It is a difficult assignment. China may be assured of its own good intentions; its neighbors are not. Chinese behavior raises questions that Beijing must address. Engagement with neighbors, partners, friends and even potential adversaries is the only real solution to the unease surrounding China’s intentions.

Last week, Foreign Minister Taro Aso noted that China “possesses nuclear arms, its military budget has seen double-digit growth for the past 17 years and its content is not transparent.” A growing missile force, the pursuit of a blue-water navy, the modernization of its submarines and an increasingly belligerent stance over territorial conflicts with Japan all add to his concern. Mr. Aso is not sure why China is taking these steps given the seeming lack of direct threats to it and concluded that China “is starting to become a considerable threat.” Those thoughts were echoed by Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, and even Mr. Seiji Maehara, the head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, has admitted that he is troubled by China’s growing military capabilities.

Japan is not the only country worried about China’s defense modernization efforts. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld raised similar questions last summer in a speech in Singapore. A Pentagon report on the Chinese military amplified them when it was published shortly thereafter. Security planners throughout the region have kept a close eye on China’s military, calling on Beijing to provide more information about its military spending, its plans and its views of the world.

China has not been deaf to those pleas. The Chinese leadership understands that rising powers have historically disrupted international relations. In response, they have provided assurances of China’s good intentions. At every opportunity, Chinese leaders and scholars acknowledge that China has learned the lessons of the past, assert that China’s rise must be peaceful, and deny any intention of dominating the region or pressing its advantage in regional councils. They continually repeat the five principles they say have constituted Beijing’s foreign policy since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, including peaceful coexistence, mutual respect for territorial sovereignty, and mutual noninterference in internal affairs. They stress that these principles will prevent any hegemonic designs by Beijing.

“China’s Peaceful Development Road,” a new white paper published by the State Council, is the latest effort to make that case. It claims that “China’s road of peaceful development is the inevitable way for China to achieve modernization, and a serious choice and solemn promise made by the Chinese government and the Chinese people.” It argues, quite rightly, that China cannot afford to be a disruptive force: China needs a peaceful and stable international environment so that it can pursue the economic development that is the springboard for its emergence as a great power — and the basis of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy.

The white paper astutely notes that the rest of the world has enjoyed considerable benefits from China’s growth. From December 2001 to September 2005, China imported $500 billion worth of commodities annually, which created 10 million jobs for the countries and regions concerned. By 2010, the total is expected to top $1 trillion. The white paper also highlights China’s behavior. China has joined more than 130 international organizations, is committed to 267 international multilateral treaties and cooperates internationally in fields ranging from arms control to wildlife protection. It has settled boundary disputes with virtually all its neighbors; Japan is a notable exception.

The logic of the Chinese position is unassailable: China needs a peaceful international environment if it is to develop. But two questions still hang over its long-term plans. First, how will Beijing use its power and influence when it has two more decades of growth under its belt? Second, and more troubling in the short-term, what about Taiwan? There is no mention in the white paper of the island that Beijing considers a “renegade province,” and China has insisted that it will use force to prevent Taipei from declaring independence. Since Taiwan is the most likely cause of conflict, the silence undermines Chinese assurances.

Ultimately, words alone will not provide the confidence building that is required. Dismissing concerns out of hand or merely repeating “the inevitability of the country’s peaceful development” does not help China’s cause. China must better engage concerned countries in strategic dialogue and embrace transparency to inspire more confidence in its intentions.

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