Will China Rule the World?

Beijing Forbidden City

Have the past two centuries of a Western defined and dominated world order — the norms, rules and ways of thinking about the world — the very concept of modernity — been a historical anomaly? After all, until the early 1800s, really until the onset of the industrial age, China and India accounted for some 50% of the world economy. The list of Chinese inventions over its nearly 5000 year history is a long one, from gunpowder and the printing press to oceanic navigation decades before the West.

A standing half-joking line sometimes tossed around by Asia hands is that “China had a couple of bad centuries, but now they’re back.” That notion is really the theme of a widely discussed recent book by Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World. It’s more than your typical “rise of China” book citing the usual suspects: economic prowess matched by diplomatic skill and military build-up. While Jacques’ well-researched, readable, multi-dimensional and provocative book forecasting a future Sino-centric world can be accused of seeing things too much through a Chinese prism, much of it is not easily dismissed.

Jacques elaborates traditional notions of Chinese culture/identity and civilization to explain China’s remarkable success. Viewed through the prism of Chinese culture and history as a “civilization-state” (which pre-dated the Westphalian system by some 2000 years) rather than a nation-state some increasingly dubious expectations for China become understandable.  For example, so-far-unrealized Western hopes that economic success equals larger middle class equals democratization — especially in a globalized China — can be more easily fathomed. The Confucian ethos of the meritocratic state and relation between the ruler and the ruled (e.g. The Mandate of Heaven) helps explain the durability of an adaptable Communist party elite.

Jacques argues for viewing the current regime in Beijing as the latest iteration of a long line of Imperial Chinese regimes. Performance-based legitimacy may not ultimately spare China’s rulers from a democratic transition. But China’s authoritarian ways do not appear imminently at risk and those now embraced Confucian ethos and sense of Chinese identity may be part of the reason why.

However, Taiwan’s experience pokes a serious hole in that logic. Taiwan is the first Chinese society to transform itself from an authoritarian regime (one whose ruling KMT party had a Leninist structure much like Beijing’s) into a vibrant democracy.

Modern vs. Western

One interesting way of looking at it is Jacques effort to distinguish between modernity and Westernization. A thoughtful section on Japan, the first non-Western successfully modernized industrial society, outlines how the they managed to incorporate Western economic savvy while weaving into — and preserving — their own culture and traditions. This is part of the story of Asia’s reemergence in a compressed timeframe, achieving in three decades in some cases what occurred in over a century in the West.

The current period is unique in modern history in that we are seeing rising powers like China, India, and perhaps Brazil that are at once emerging as major powers even as they are still developing countries. Thus, it is argued that we are in a world of competing modernities. This raises questions about what sort of behavior to expect from China in regard to global norms and rules, the degree to which China adhere to institutions like the WTO, and how much it may bend or find workarounds to the rules. Beijing’s current “indigenous innovation” policy — employing all the tools of the state to force technology transfers from foreign investors — is something U.S. and other foreign multinational firms are trying to grapple with.

The Han ethnic/national identity and sense of racial/cultural superiority is one element that Jacques offers useful insight on. Understanding that dimension of the Chinese worldview helps explain the turbulence on the non-Han parts of China — Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as some of Beijing’s foreign policy mindset vis-à-vis the region.  Understanding the Confucian sense of hierarchy and the tributary system by which Imperial China dominated the region may be helpful in grasping how Beijing considers the region. Obviously, the tributary system will not be replicated in the 21st century. But looking at evolving Sinocentric pan-Asian institutions like the ASEAN+3 and the Chiang Mai initiative (which could evolve into an Asian Monetary Fund) coupled with  Beijing’s bilateral ties in the region and assertiveness in the South China Sea, one could be forgiven for asking whether a 21st century version of the tributary system is unfolding.

Underestimating Vulnerabilities

One area where many China Triumphalist arguments fall short – and Jacques is no exception – is in underestimating China’s vulnerabilities as well as overestimating its strengths. In the near-term, there is no shortage of financial analysts who believe China’s overheated economy is due for a major correction in the form of real estate bubbles bursting. Then there are the rural-urban, rich-poor divides that remain a source tension to the degree that even the Chinese government reports tens of thousands of “incidents” each year.

Then there is the environmental factor. China’s mindboggling growth has come at the expense of a ravaged environment – the most polluted cities and rivers in the world, clean water shortages, and countless other environmental degradations. Problems with water alone may be a serious stumbling block in China’s future. 

All these factors should be enough to caution against straight line projections leading to China being No.1 anytime soon.

But in any case one flawed assumption Jacques entertains is the idea that the rest of Asia will simply acquiesce to China’s emerging hegemony. While all the region seems to sense that they have little choice but to work with China and accept to some degree its growing economic and strategic footprint, there is something else afoot. Looking around China’s periphery, Japan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Australia are all hedging against a Sino-centric future, bolstering ties to the U.S. and strongly encouraging U.S. deeper engagement in Asia. This is not any sort of “containment” but perhaps a sort of balancing. If China pursues a pattern of blatently aggressive, imperious behavior, these nations along China’s periphery could form the nucleus of a counter-weight.

Will China Rule the World? A bit of an overstatement. But looking out to 2050, viewing China as a dominant player in a multipolar world would not seem unrealistic.

Robert Manning is a Senior Advisor to the Atlantic Council.  The views expressed here are solely his own, not those of any U.S. government agency.

Image: beijing-tiananmen-square.jpg