How Long Will China Remain a ‘Peaceful Lion’?

China might currently be described as a ‘peaceful lion,’ but that could chance one day in the future if China feels threatened.

On Mar 27, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and France, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a speech, saying “China is a sleeping lion. Today, the lion has woken up. But it is peaceful, pleasant and civilized.”

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Chinese president Xi Jinping delivers his speech at the French foreign ministry, in Paris, Thursday, March 27, 2014. Credit: AP

He added: “China will not stir up trouble, but we are also not afraid of trouble.” This metaphor shows an ambition of China to become a great power which might in the future balance the US.

Xi’s speech also signals a subtle but substantial shift in China – the globe’s second largest economy since 2010 – on how it intends to extend its power and influence around the world. Analysts say that Xi is basically admitting that China is powerful, and that he is aware that some countries will be nervous about it, but they have to get used to China’s status.

A better way to understand China’s metaphor as a peaceful lion might be that China will keep improving military and technological power based on the economic growth to enlarge its international influence.

It’ll be just like the previous western countries’ development models, emphasizing on the development of hard power. Hard power is the base and determinant factor of soft power, without which soft power could never prosper.

Therefore, China must first develop its hard power, i.e. economic power. The big difference lies in the fact that during western countries development, they took the outward expansion which led to an array of foreign wars, while China prefers to develop peacefully and promises never to seek hegemony. China will never start conflicts or wars. But if China one day develops to a certain point and can posses sufficient power to balance the US, I don’t think China will refuse to take that position.

According to the population-productivity-political capacity analysis based on the power transition theory, China will be the first country to overtake the US, though it will take many more years before that momentum can be channeled into real power, due to several pitfalls.

If China develops as satisfied great power, then the power transition will occur under peaceful conditions. Therefore, China has this ambition to overtake Washington once it possesses enough capabilities; yet China may not intend to become the only superpower but to be a great power balancing the US.

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Today’s world is destined to become a complex interdependence type, according to neoliberalists’ portrait of the world politics.

Countries rely more and more on each other in economics, politics and culture through multiple channels at different levels, like interstate, transgovernmental and transnational. Within this type, military or force plays a minor role and even is irrelevant to resolving disagreements or economic issues among alliances. Therefore, there will hardly be any big conflicts or wars around the world today, since the cost of war will probably be very high. What countries seek more is cooperation and alliance to share common interests.

As China has a large population base and keeps developing and economic growing at a relatively high-speed, 7.4 percent, it’s inevitably that China will sooner or later rise to be a great power, balancing the US. Xi’s speech also indicates that China is willing to extend its influence in the field of global security and diplomatic affairs and take more responsibilities as a rising power. But that doesn’t mean China will pose a threat, since nobody wants to stir up trouble. Countries today become more likely to pursue equilibrium.

Taking a step back, even though China could keep developing at a high-speed, it’s still a long time before China actually becomes a superpower and balances the US. China has many domestic problems to consider: industrial pollution, imbalance development between different areas, large numbers of deeply impoverished villages, protecting the living environment, corruption problems, the big gap between high housing price and living costs and the low salary.

It already shows a slowing economic growth in the latest quarter, 7.4 percent, compared with the same quarter last year, 7.7 percent. Besides, central government has faced challenges from several regional powers, like extreme separatist groups from XinJiang and Tibet, which disgrace the government’s authority and credibility.

Back to the peaceful lion, while, a lion can be peaceful once it’s satisfied with its present living environment, i.e. the EU will not pose threats to China’s development and both sides could strengthen their economic cooperation. But if one day in the future China feels threatened and gets into trouble, it might not be peaceful any more.

Kaiyu Li is a graduate student majoring in International Relations at NYU.