A friend who teaches in Hong Kong tells me that her Chinese students are unanimous in their conviction that China will overtake the United States as the world’s supreme economic, political and military power within just a few years.
“They don’t say it as a boast, or to goad me as a Westerner,” she says. “For them it’s an inevitable part of China’s natural progression. They simply cannot accept any other possibility.”
There are a few more shades of grey in the picture as seen from the West, but there is no doubt China’s rise is bringing a disturbing dimension to the comfortable ‘end of history’ picture that prevailed in the first decade after the end of the Cold War. In a recent address to the ACT Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, Hugh White, said it represented the biggest change in Asia since the end of the Vietnam War “and perhaps the biggest shift since the Industrial Revolution”.
It comes at a time when America’s global role is being questioned even within its own boarders. The worldwide financial chaos of recent years and lengthy, costly and debilitating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are sapping the public’s enthusiasm for the US as an international policeman. Isolationist tendencies, never far from the surface, are bubbling up again with leaders of the newly-emerging Tea Party calling for the country’s withdrawal from the United Nations.
Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, G. John Ikenberry, believes an increasingly powerful China raises fundamental questions about the future of the Western-led liberal international order.
In his scenario the established but declining lead state endeavours to protect the existing order while the rising state seeks to recast rules and institutions to reflect its growing power and interests. Competition and conflict follow - and sometimes war.
White accepts this as a possibility, but does not believe China will aspire to be a truly global power with a blue water navy regularly steaming into the Atlantic. However, it will challenge the US for the leadership of the East Asia region, seeking to upset the strategic balance which has existed there since the end of World War II.
He sees three options for America - withdrawal from Asia, sharing power with China or competing with China for primacy. Of these the second is the most logical with the US, China, Japan and possibly India acting in concert in the same way as the major European countries were able to keep a reasonable level of peace on the continent between 1815 and 1914.
“It is an agreement between Great Powers than none of them will seek to dominate the system as a whole,” White said. “What motivates that agreement is not a very generous sense of international citizenship but a sustained judgement that the costs and risks to each of them in trying to do otherwise would not be justified because the others would gang up and mash them.
“But let me say it is by no means the most likely option - in fact I would say it is the least likely of the three.”
Most likely is competition between the two, which in reality has already begun. “It is possible that this can be managed, but when the states are the two strongest in the world there is a real risk it will escalate towards a new cold war - or worse,” White said.
US Ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich sees no reason for immediate concern. In an address to the Canberra Division of the Australian American Association he pointed out that despite its recent gains, China’s economy was still only one third of that of America’s.
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