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When China Rules the World
The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World

Martin Jacques

The changing of the guard

Since 1945 the United States has been the world’s dominant power. Even during the Cold War its economy was far more advanced, and more than twice as large, as that of the Soviet Union, while its military capability and technological sophistication were much superior. Following the Second World War, the US was the prime mover in the creation of a range of multinational and global institutions, such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and NATO, which were testament to its new-found global power and authority. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 greatly enhanced America’s pre-eminent position, eliminating its main adversary and resulting in the territories and countries of the former Soviet bloc opening their markets and turning in many cases to the US for aid and support. Never before, not even in the heyday of the British Empire, had a nation’s power enjoyed such a wide reach. The dollar became the world’s preferred currency, with most trade being conducted in it and most reserves held in it. The US dominated all the key global institutions bar the UN, and enjoyed a military presence in every part of the world. Its global position seemed unassailable, and at the turn of the millennium terms like ‘hyperpower’ and ‘unipolarity’ were coined to describe what appeared to be a new and unique form of power.

The baton of pre-eminence, before being passed to the United States, had been held by Europe, especially the major European nations like Britain, France and Germany, and previously, to a much lesser extent, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. From the beginning of Britain’s Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century until the mid twentieth century, Europe was to shape global history in a most profound manner. The engine of Europe’s dynamism was industrialization and its mode of expansion colonial conquest. Even as Europe’s position began to decline after the First World War, and precipitously after 1945, the fact that America, the new rising power, was a product of European civilization served as a source of empathy and affi nity between the Old World and the New World, giving rise to ties which found expression in the idea of the West while serving to mitigate the effects of latent imperial rivalry between Britain and the United States. For over two centuries the West, fi rst in the form of Europe and subsequently the United States, has dominated the world.

We are now witnessing an historic change which, though still relatively in its infancy, is destined to transform the world. The developed world – which for over a century has meant the West (namely, the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand) plus Japan – is rapidly being overhauled in terms of economic size by the developing world. In 2001 the developed countries accounted for just over half the world’s GDP, compared with around 60 per cent in 1973. It will be a long time, of course, before even the most advanced of the developing countries acquires the economic and technological sophistication of the developed, but because they collectively account for the overwhelming majority of the world’s population and their economic growth rate has been rather greater than that of the developed world, their rise has already resulted in a signifi cant shift in the balance of global economic power. There have been several contemporary illustrations of this realignment. After declining for over two decades, commodity prices began to increase around the turn of the century, driven by buoyant economic growth in the developing world, above all from China, until the onset of a global recession reversed this trend, at least in the short run. Meanwhile, the stellar economic performance of the East Asian economies, with their resulting huge trade surpluses, has enormously swollen their foreign exchange reserves. A proportion of these have been invested, notably in the case of China and Singapore, in state-controlled sovereign wealth funds whose purpose is to seek profi table investments in other countries, including the West. Commodity-producing countries, notably the oil-rich states in the Middle East, have similarly invested part of their newly expanded income in such funds. Sovereign wealth funds acquired powerful new leverage as a result of the credit crunch, commanding resources which the major Western fi nancial institutions palpably lacked. The meltdown of some of Wall Street’s largest fi nancial institutions in September 2008 underlined the shift in economic power from the West, with some of the fallen giants seeking support from sovereign wealth funds and the US government stepping in to save the mortgage titans Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae partly in order to reassure countries like China, which had invested huge sums of money in them: if they had withdrawn these, it would almost certainly have precipitated a collapse in the value of the dollar. The fi nancial crisis has graphically illustrated the disparity between an East Asia cash-rich from decades of surpluses and a United States cash-poor following many years of deficits.

According to projections by Goldman Sachs, as shown in Figure 1, the three largest economies in the world by 2050 will be China, followed by a closely matched America and India some way behind, and then Brazil, Mexico, Russia and Indonesia. Only two European countries feature in the top ten, namely the UK and Germany in ninth and tenth place respectively. Of the present G7, only four appear in the top ten. In similar forecasts, PricewaterhouseCoopers suggest that the Brazilian economy could be larger than Japan’s, and that the Russian, Mexican and Indonesian economies could each be bigger than the German, French and UK economies by 2050. If these projections, or something similar, are borne out in practice, then during the next four decades the world will come to look like a very different place indeed.

Figure 1

Such a scenario was far from people’s minds in 2001. Following 9/11, the United States not only saw itself as the sole superpower but attempted to establish a new global role which refl ected that pre-eminence. The neo-conservative think-tank Project for the New American Century, established in 1997 by, amongst others, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, adopted a statement of principles which articulated the new doctrine and helped prepare the ground for the Bush administration:

As the 20th century draws to a close, the United States stands as the world’s preeminent power. Having led the West to victory in the Cold War, America faces an opportunity and a challenge: Does the United States have the vision to build upon the achievements of past decades? Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests?

In 2004 the infl uential neo-conservative Charles Krauthammer wrote:

On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union died and something new was born, something utterly new – a unipolar world dominated by a single superpower unchecked by any rival and with decisive reach in every corner of the globe. This is a staggering development in history, not seen since the fall of Rome.

The new century dawned with the world deeply aware of and preoccupied by the prospect of what appeared to be overwhelming American power. The neo-conservatives chose to interpret the world through the prism of the defeat of the Soviet Union and the overwhelming military superiority enjoyed by the United States, rather than in terms of the underlying trend towards economic multipolarity, which was downplayed. The new doctrine placed a premium on the importance of the United States maintaining a huge military lead over other countries in order to deter potential rivals, and on the US pursuing its own interests rather than being constrained either by its allies or international agreements. In the post-Cold War era, US military expenditure was almost as great as that of all the other nations of the world combined: never in the history of the human race has the military inequality between one nation and all others been so great. The Bush presidency’s foreign policy marked an important shift compared with that of previous administrations: the war on terror became the new imperative, America’s relations with Western Europe were accorded reduced signifi cance, the principle of national sovereignty was denigrated and that of regime-change affi rmed, culminating in the invasion of Iraq. Far from the United States presiding over a reshaping of global affairs, however, it rapidly found itself beleaguered in Iraq and enjoying less global support than at any time since 1945. The exercise of overwhelming military power proved of little effect in Iraq but served to squander the reserves of soft power – in Joseph S. Nye’s words, ‘the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals and policies’ – that the United States had accumulated since 1945. Failing to comprehend the signifi cance of deeper economic trends, as well as misreading the situation in Iraq, the Bush administration overestimated American power and thereby overplayed its hand, with the consequence that its policies had exactly the opposite effect to that which had been intended: instead of enhancing the US’s position in the world, Bush’s foreign policy seriously weakened it. The neo-conservative position represented a catastrophic misreading of history.

Figure 2

Military and political power rest on economic strength. As Paul Kennedy argued in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, the ability of nations to exercise and sustain global hegemony has ultimately depended on their productive capacity. America’s present superpower status is a product of its rapid economic growth between 1870 and 1950 and the fact that during the second half of the twentieth century it was the world’s largest and often most dynamic economy. This economic strength underpinned and made possible its astonishing political, cultural and military power from 1945 onwards. According to the economic historian Angus Maddison, the US economy accounted for 8.8 per cent of global GDP in 1870. There then followed a spectacular period of growth during which the proportion rose to 18.9 per cent in 1913 and 27.3 per cent in 1950. This was followed by a slow and steady decline to 22.1 per cent in 1973, with the fi gure now hovering around 20 per cent. This still represents a formidable proportion, given that the US accounts for only 4.6 per cent of the world’s population, but the long-run trend is unmistakable. One could make a similar point in relation to Victorian Britain’s imperial reach between 1850 and 1914. This was made possible because Britain accomplished the world’s fi rst industrial revolution and, as a consequence, came to enjoy a big economic lead over all other countries. Compared with the United States, however, whose share of global GDP peaked at 35 per cent in 1944 (albeit in a war-ravaged world), the highest fi gure for the UK was a much smaller 9 per cent in 1899. The precipitous decline of Britain as a global power over the last half century has been the predictable result of its deteriorating relative economic position, its share of global GDP having sunk to a mere 3.3 per cent by 1998. If Britain took its place alongside the United States in Iraq, its military contribution was largely cosmetic. The precondition for being a hegemonic power, including the ability or otherwise to preside over a formal or informal empire, is economic strength. In the long run at least, it is a merciless measure. Notwithstanding this, imperial powers in decline are almost invariably in denial of the fact. That was the case with Britain from 1918 onwards and, to judge by the behaviour of the Bush administration (though perhaps not Obama’s) – which failed to read the runes, preferring to believe that the US was about to rule the world in a new American century when the country was actually in decline and on the eve of a world in which it would fi nd its authority considerably diminished – the US may well make the same mistake, perhaps on a much grander scale. The fi nancial meltdown in 2008 belatedly persuaded a growing number of American commentators that the United States might after all be in decline, but that was still a far cry from a general recognition of the extent and irreversibility of that decline and how it might diminish American power and infl uence in the future.
It has been estimated that the total budgetary and economic cost to the United States of the Iraq war will turn out to be around $3 trillion. Even with this level of expenditure, the armed forces have come under huge strain as a result of the war. Deployments have got steadily longer and redeployments more frequent, retention rates and recruitment standards have fallen, while the army has lost many of its brightest and best, with a remorseless rise in the number of offi cers choosing to leave at the earliest opportunity. Such has been the inordinate cost of the Iraqi occupation that, regardless of political considerations, the fi nancial burden of any similar proposed invasion of Iran – in practice likely to be much higher – would always have been too large: for military as well as political reasons, the Bush administration was unable to seriously contemplate similar military action against Iran and North Korea, the other two members of its ‘axis of evil’. The United States is, thus, already beginning to face the classic problems of imperial overreach. The burden of maintaining a huge global military presence, with over 800 American bases dotted around the world, has been one of the causes of the US’s enormous current account defi cit, which in 2006 accounted for 6.5 per cent of US GDP. In future the American economy will fi nd it increasingly diffi cult to support such a military commitment. The United States has ceased to be a major manufacturer or a large-scale exporter of manufactured goods, having steadily ceded that position to East Asia. In recent times it has persistently been living beyond its means: the government has been spending more than it saves, households have been doing likewise, and since 1982, apart from one year, the country has been buying more from foreigners than it sells to them, with a consequent huge current account defi cit and a growing volume of IOUs. Current account defi cits can of course be rectifi ed, but only by reducing growth and accepting a lower level of economic activity. Growing concern on the part of foreign institutions about these defi cits led to a steady fall in the value of the dollar until 2008, and this could well be resumed at some point, further threatening the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency and American fi nancial power. The credit rating agency Moody’s warned in 2008 that the US faced the prospect within a decade of losing its top-notch triple-A credit rating, fi rst granted to US government debt when it was assessed in 1917, unless it took radical action to curb government expenditure. And this was before the fi nancial meltdown in 2008, which, with the huge taxpayer-funded government bail-out of the fi nancial sector, will greatly increase the size of the US national debt. This is not to suggest that, in the short run, the US will be required to reduce its military expenditure for reasons of fi nancial restraint: indeed, given the position that the US military occupies in the national psyche, and the primary emphasis that US foreign policy has traditionally placed on military power, this seems most unlikely. Being an imperial power, however, is a hugely expensive business and, peering into the future, as its relative economic power declines, the United States will no longer be able to sustain the military commitments and military superiority that it presently enjoys.

A new kind of world

We stand on the eve of a different kind of world, but comprehending it is diffi cult: we are so accustomed to dealing with the paradigms and parame ters of the contemporary world that we inevitably take them for granted, believing that they are set in concrete rather than themselves being the subject of longer-run cycles of historical change. Given that American global hegemony has held sway for almost a lifetime, and that Western supremacy transcends many lifetimes, this is not surprising. We are so used to the world being Western, even American, that we have little idea what it would be like if it was not. The West, moreover, has a strong vested interest in the world being cast in its image, because this brings multifarious benefi ts. As a matter of course, hegemonic powers seek to project their values and institutions on to subordinate nations and the latter, in response, will, depending on circumstances, adapt or genufl ect towards their ways; if they don’t, hegemonic powers generally seek to impose those values and arrangements on them, even in extremis by force. For reasons of both mindset and interest, therefore, the United States, and the West more generally, fi nds it diffi cult to visualize, or accept, a world that involves a major and continuing diminution in its infl uence.
Take globalization as an example. The dominant Western view has been that globalization is a process by which the rest of the world becomes – and should become – increasingly Westernized, with the adoption of free markets, the import of Western capital, privatization, the rule of law, human rights regimes and democratic norms. Much political effort, indeed, has been expended by the West towards this end. Competition, the market and technology, meanwhile, have been powerful and parallel pressures fostering the kind of convergence and homogeneity which is visible in many developing cities around the world in the form of high-rise buildings, expressways, mobile phones, and much else. There are, however, strong countervailing forces, rooted in the specifi c history and culture of each society, that serve to shape indigenous institutions like the family, the government and the company and which pull in exactly the opposite direction. Furthermore, as countries grow more prosperous they become increasingly self-confi dent about their own culture and history, and thereby less inclined to ape the West. Far from being a one-way process, globalization is rather more complex: the United States may have been the single most infl uential player, exerting enormous power in successive rounds of global trade talks, for example, but the biggest winner has been East Asia and the greatest single benefi ciary China. The process of globalization involves an unending tension between on the one hand the forces of convergence, including Western political pressure, and on the other hand the counter-trend towards divergence and indigenization.

Prior to 1960, the West and Japan enjoyed a huge economic advantage over the rest of the world, which still remained largely agrarian in character, but since then a gamut of developing countries have closed the gap with the West, especially those in East Asia. As a consequence, it is becoming increasingly diffi cult to distinguish between the developed world and the more advanced parts of the developing world: South Korea and Taiwan, for example, are now to be counted as developed. But as countries reach Western levels of development, do they become more like the West, or less like the West, or perhaps paradoxically a combination of the two? Clearly the pressures for convergence indicate the former but the forces of divergence and indigenization suggest the contrary. Previously, the overarching difference between the developed and the developing world was the huge disparity in their levels of economic development. It is only with the arrival of these countries at the lower reaches of Western levels of development that the question of convergence or divergence becomes pertinent. There has been an assumption by the Western mainstream that there is only one way of being modern, which involves the adoption of Western-style institutions, values, customs and beliefs, such as the rule of law, the free market and democratic norms. This, one might add, is an attitude typically held by peoples and cultures who regard themselves as more developed and more ‘civilized’ than others: that progress for those who are lower down on the developmental scale involves them becoming more like those who are higher up.

The significance of this debate to a world in which the developing nations are increasingly infl uential is far-reaching: if their end-point is similar to the West, or, to put it another way, Western-style modernity, then the new world is unlikely to be so different from the one we inhabit now, because China, India, Indonesia and Brazil, to take four examples, will differ little in their fundamental characteristics from the West. This was the future envisaged by Francis Fukuyama, who predicted that the post-Cold War world would be based on a new universalism embodying the Western principles of the free market and democracy. If, on the other hand, their ways of being modern diverge signifi cantly, even sharply, from the Western model, then a world in which they predominate is likely to look very different from the present Western-made one in which we still largely live. As I discuss in the prologue to Part I, modernity is made possible by industrialization, and until the middle of the last century this was a condition which was exclusive to a small part of the world. As a result, before the second half of the twentieth century the West enjoyed a de facto monopoly of modernity, with Japan the only exception, because these were the only countries that had experienced economic take-off. It might be argued that the Soviet Union also constituted a form of modernity, but it remained, contrary to its claims, far more backward than Western nations in terms of GDP per head, the proportion of the population living in the countryside, and its technological level. Moreover, although it was Eurasian, the USSR was always dominated by its European parts and therefore shared much of the Western tradition. Japan is a fascinating example which I will consider at length in Chapter 3. Until the Second World War it remained a relative outsider, having commenced its industrialization in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. After 1945 Japan became a powerful economic competitor to the West, and by the 1980s it had established itself as the second largest economy behind the United States. Japan, however, always sought to assert its Western credentials and play down its political and cultural distinctiveness. Defeated in the Second World War, occupied by the United States until 1951, endowed with a constitution written by the Americans, disqualifi ed from maintaining a signifi cant military force (and thereby dependent on the US–Japan security pact fi rst signed in 1951 for its defence), Japan, if not a vassal state of the Americans, certainly enjoyed an attenuated sovereignty. It is this which largely explains why, although it is a highly distinctive country which culturally shares little with the West, it has nonetheless persistently sought to emphasize its Western characteristics.

With the exception of Japan, the modern world has thus until recently been exclusively Western, comprising Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; in other words, Europe plus those countries to which European settlers migrated and which they subsequently conquered, or, as the economic historian Angus Maddison chooses to describe them, the ‘European offshoots’. Western modernity – or modernity as we have hitherto known it – rests, therefore, on a relatively small fragment of human experience. In every instance, that experience is either European or comes from Europe, sharing wholly or largely the cultural, political, intellectual, racial and ethnic characteristics of that continent. The narrowness, and consequent unrepresentativeness, of the Western experience is often overlooked, such has been the dominance that the West has enjoyed over the last two centuries. But as other countries, with very different cultures and histories, and contrasting civilizational inheritances, embark on the process of modernization, the particularism and exceptionalism of the Western experience will become increasingly apparent. In historical terms, we are still at the very beginning of this process. It was only in the late 1950s that the fi rst Asian tigers – South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore – began their economic take-offs, to be joined in the 1970s by Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and others, followed by China. And what was once more or less confi ned to East Asia – by which I mean Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea in North-East Asia, and countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam in South-East Asia – has more recently spread to other regions and continents, most notably India. In 1950 the US GDP was almost three times that of East Asia and almost twice that of Asia. By 2001 US GDP was only two-thirds that of Asia, and rather less than that of East Asia. In Part I, I will discuss more fully the nature of modernity, arguing that rather than there being a single way of being modern, we are witnessing the birth of a world of multiple and competing modernities. This will be a quite new and novel feature of the twenty-fi rst century, ushering in an era of what I characterize as contested modernity.

Although we are witnessing the rise of a growing number of developing countries, China is by far the most important economically. It is the bearer and driver of the new world, with which it enjoys an increasingly hegemonic relationship, its tentacles having stretched across East Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, Latin America and Africa in little more than a decade. China is very different from earlier Asian tigers like South Korea and Taiwan. Unlike the latter, it has never been a vassal state of the United States; furthermore, it enjoys a huge population, with all that this implies. The challenge represented by China’s rise is, as a consequence, on a different scale to that of the other Asian tigers. Nonetheless, the consensus in the West, at least up until very recently, has been that China will eventually end up – as a result of its modernization, or as a precondition for it, or a combination of the two – as a Western-style country. American policy towards China over the last three decades has been informed by this belief. It has underpinned America’s willingness to cooperate with China, open its markets to Chinese exports, agree to its admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and allow it to become an increasingly fully-fl edged member of the international community.

The mainstream Western attitude has held that, in its fundamentals, the world will be relatively little changed by China’s rise. This is based on three key assumptions: that China’s challenge will be primarily economic in nature; that China will in due course become a typical Western nation; and that the international system will remain broadly as it now is, with China acquiescing in the status quo and becoming a compliant member of the international community. Each of these assumptions is misconceived. The rise of China will change the world in the most profound ways.

The effects of China’s economic rise are being felt around the world, most notably in the falling price of many consumer products and the rise, until the credit crunch, in commodity prices. With a population four times the size of that of the United States and a double-digit growth rate, Goldman Sachs has projected that in 2027 China will overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy, although even then China will still be at the relatively early stages of its transformation into a modern economy. Breathtaking as these economic forecasts are, why should we assume that the effects of China’s rise will be primarily economic in nature? Rising powers in time invariably use their new-found economic strength for wider political, cultural and military ends. That is what being a hegemonic power involves, and China will surely become one. The West, however, fi nds it diffi cult to ima gine such a scenario. Having been hegemonic for so long, the West has, for the most part, become imprisoned within its own assumptions, unable to see the world other than in terms of itself. Progress is invariably defi ned in terms of degrees of Westernization, with the consequence that the West must always occupy the summit of human development since by defi nition it is the most Western, while the progress of others is measured by the extent of their Westernization. Political and cultural differences are seen as symptoms of backwardness which will steadily disappear with economic modernization. It is inconceivable, however, that China will become a Western-style nation in the manner to which we are accustomed. China is the product of a history and culture which has little or nothing in common with that of the West. It is only by discounting the effects of history and culture and reducing the world to a matter of economics and technology that it is possible to conclude that China will become Western.

As Chapter 5 will show, it is striking how relatively little East Asia has, in fact, been Westernized, notwithstanding the effects of a century or more of European colonization followed by a half-century of American ascendancy in the region. If that is true of East Asia as a whole, it is even truer of China. There are four key themes, each rooted in Chinese history, which mark China as distinct from the West and which, far from being of diminishing signifi cance, are likely to exercise an increasing infl uence over how China both sees itself and also conceives of its place and role in the world. These form the subject matter of the second part of the book, but as a taster I can outline them in brief as follows.

In the fi rst place, China should not be seen primarily as a nation-state, even though that is how it presently describes itself and how it is seen by others. China has existed within roughly its present borders for almost two thousand years and only over the last century has it come to regard itself as a nation-state. The identity of the Chinese was formed before China assumed the status of a nation-state, unlike in the West, where the identity of people, in both Europe and the United States, is largely expressed in terms of the nation-state. The Chinese, in constantly making reference to what they describe as their 5,000-year history, are aware that what defi nes them is not a sense of nationhood but of civilization. In this context, China should not primarily be seen as a nation-state but rather as a civilization-state. The implications of this are far-reaching: it is simply not possible to regard China as like, or equivalent to, any other state. I will explore this question more fully during the course of the book, especially in Chapter 7.

Likewise, China has a different conception of race to that held by the other most populous nations, notably India, Indonesia and the United States, which acknowledge, in varying degrees, that they are intrinsically multiracial in character. It is self-evident that a country as vast as China, comprising a fi fth of the world’s population, was originally composed of a huge diversity of races. Yet the Han Chinese, who account for around 92 per cent of the population, believe that they comprise one race. The explanation for this lies in the unique longevity of Chinese civilization, which has engendered a strong sense of unity and common identity while also, over a period of thousands of years, enabling a mixing and melding of a multitude of diverse races. There is also an ideological component to the Chinese attitude towards race: at the end of the nineteenth century, as the dynastic state found itself increasingly beleaguered in the face of the European, American and Japanese occupying powers, the term ‘Han Chinese’ acquired widespread popularity as part of a nationalist reaction against both the invaders and also the Manchu character of the Qing dynasty. But in practice this is a far less infl uential factor than the effects of China’s long history. Race is rarely paid the attention it deserves in political and cultural writing, but attitudes towards race and ethnicity are integral to understanding all societies. As I demonstrate in Chapter 8, they shape and defi ne how the Chinese see the non-Chinese, whether within China or the rest of the world. The Chinese attitude towards difference will be a powerful factor in determining how China behaves as a global power.

Until little more than a century ago, China’s hinterland – what we know today as East Asia – was organized on the basis of tributary relationships which involved neighbouring states acknowledging China’s cultural superiority and its overwhelming power by paying tribute to the Middle Kingdom (which is the Mandarin Chinese name for China, namely Zho¯ngguó) in return for benevolence and protection. The tributary system, as it was known, fell victim to the colonization of East Asia by the European powers, and was replaced by the Westphalian nation-state system. Is it possible that the tributary system could return to the region? China, as before, is set to economically dwarf the rest of the region. The Europeans have long since departed East Asia, while the American position is progressively weakening. It should not be taken for granted that the interstate system that prevails in the region will continue to be a version of the Westphalian. If, with the rise of China, we are entering a different world, then that is even truer of East Asia, which is already in the process of being reconfi gured in terms of a renascent China. I consider the nature of the tributary state system, past and possible future, in Chapter 9.

Finally, the most single important characteristic of China concerns its unity. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square repression it was widely believed in the West that China would fracture in a manner similar to the Soviet Union. This was based on a fundamental misreading of China. The latter has occupied roughly similar territory – certainly in terms of where the great majority of the population live – for almost two millennia. When the Roman Empire was in the process of fragmenting into many smaller states, China was moving in the opposite direction, acquiring a unity which has, despite long periods of Balkanization, lasted until the present. The result is a single country that is home to a huge slice of humanity. This profoundly affects how it sees the rest of the world as well as providing it with – potentially at least – exceptional power. The sheer size of China defi nes it as different from all other countries, bar India. The nature and ramifi cations of China’s unity are considered at various stages in the book, notably in Chapters 4, 7, 8 and 11.

It is obvious from the profundity of these four points – civilization-state, race, tributary state, and unity – let alone many others that I will consider during the course of the book – that China has enjoyed a quite different history to that of the West. Countries invariably see the world in terms of their own experience. As they become hegemonic powers – as China will – they seek to shape the world in the light of their own values and priorities. It is banal, therefore, to believe that China’s infl uence on the world will be mainly and overwhelmingly economic: on the contrary, its political and cultural effects are likely to be at least as far-reaching. The underlying argument of the book is that China’s impact on the world will be as great as that of the United States over the last century, probably far greater.

This brings us to the question of whether, in the long run, China will accept the international system as presently constituted or seek a fundamental change in that system. It is an impossible question to answer with any certainty because we are still at such an early stage of China’s rise. Since 1978 China has progressively sought to become a fully-fl edged member of the international community and has gone to considerable lengths to reassure the West that it is a ‘responsible power’, as it likes to describe itself. John Ikenberry, an infl uential American writer on international relations, has argued that:

The postwar Western order is historically unique. Any international order dominated by a powerful state is based on a mix of coercion and consent, but the US-led order is distinctive in that it has been more liberal than imperial – and so unusually accessible, legitimate, and durable. Its rules and institutions are rooted in, and thus reinforced by, the evolving global forces of democracy and capitalism. It is expansive, with a wide and widening array of participants and stakeholders. It is capable of generating tremendous economic growth and power while also signalling restraint – all of which make it hard to overturn and easy to join.

Ikenberry argues that the present American-created international order has the potential to integrate and absorb China rather than instead being replaced in the long run by a Chinese-led order. This is a crucial barometer of what the rise of China might mean. Hitherto, the arrival of a new global hegemon has ushered in a major change in the international order, as was the case with both Britain and then the United States. Given that China promises to be so inordinately powerful and different, it is diffi cult to resist the idea that in time its rise will herald the birth of a new international order. It is a question I will return to towards the end of the book.
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