China’s growing technological prowess will once again be demonstrated with the launch of its first manned spacecraft. There is now little doubt that China is gradually emerging as an economic and military superpower, and the only real challenger to the might of the United States of America. It remains to be seen, however, if the Asian giant will use its power as a force of stability or become, like many great powers of the past, revisionist in its foreign policy. The latest Chinese technological advance is, of course, quite a spectacular achievement. The manned spacecraft, Shenzhou V (Divine Vessel V), that would use the indigenously developed rocket, Long March CZ-2F, would be launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gansu province. The sole astronaut will orbit the earth 14 times in about 23 hours. Not surprisingly, the entire Chinese leadership will witness the event, including the Chinese president and general secretary of the Communist Party of China, Mr Hu Jintao, and the chairman of the central military commission, Mr Jiang Zemin. With the launch, China would join an exclusive club of countries that includes only the US and Russia. The manned space mission is the most recent evidence of China’s technological capabilities. While Beijing may still be lagging far behind the US, it does seem that it is the only country that could pose a challenge to the sole superpower’s economic and military power, even in the foreseeable future.
What is less clear is if China will be status-quoist as it emerges as a great power, or seek to change the rules and norms of the international system to suit its interests. The latter course will, of course, bring it into direct confrontation with US and its allies. China’s past behaviour has been particularly revealing. Beijing has throughout exhibited a keen sense of realpolitik in its foreign policy behaviour. China’s foreign policy and diplomacy have been benign and accommodationist when the relative balance has not been its favour, but has been unusually enthusiastic to use force to settle disputes once the power equation is in its favour. India, of course, needs to carefully monitor China’s foreign policy, even as it seeks to strengthen its own capabilities. Despite the latest warmth in bilateral ties following Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing, prudence demands necessary caution. The fact is that not even the most knowledgeable Sinologists are sure of the direction that China is likely to take in the future.