China will emerge over the next half-century as the world’s leading power. But how will Chinese hegemony be expressed, and how will the west deal with its displacement and sense of loss?

Over the past two centuries, there have been two globally dominant powers: Britain between 1850 and 1914, and the United States from 1945 to the present. But even in the case of the United States, whose influence is far greater than that of any other nation in history, such overweening power has never been without constraint. The concept of hegemony elaborated by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci entails the complex interaction of coercion and consent, force and leadership, and, though it was originally advanced to explain the nature of power within societies, it is also relevant to international relations. Far from hegemony being set in concrete, it is constantly contested and redefined, the balance of power never static, always in motion.

Nor is it ever absolute. Even though the United States possesses almost as much military firepower as the rest of the world put together, that does not mean it can do whatever it likes wherever it chooses, as its disastrous occupation of Iraq illustrated. Moreover, while it enjoys military supremacy, its economic preponderance is steadily being eroded. Although the US is the world’s sole politico-military superpower, its influence varies from sphere to sphere and region to region – and in some cases it remains extremely limited.

Take the unlikely example of sport. Although the US generally tops the medals tables in the Olympic Games, there are many sports in which it is not dominant and others from which it is virtually absent. The most popular American sports have remained largely confined to the US in their appeal, with the exception of basketball, while the world’s most popular game is football, a European export. Similarly, apart from its domination of a key sector of the fast-food market, American cuisine enjoys little or no global influence. So what about China? As in the case of the United States, Chinese global hegemony will reflect the country’s particular characteristics, both historical and contemporary.

Apart from its extraordinary longevity and bursts of efflorescent invention, the most striking feature of Chinese history is the fact that while Europe, following the fall of the Roman empire, fragmented into many parts, and ultimately into many nations, China was already moving in exactly the opposite direction and starting to coalesce. It is this unity that has ensured the continuity of its civilisation and also provided the size which remains so fundamental to China’s character and impact. Unity is one of the most fundamental propositions concerning Chinese history, if not the most fundamental.

If Europe provided the narrative and concepts that have informed not just western but world history over the past two centuries, so China may do rather similarly for the next century or so, and thereby furnish the world with an entirely different story and set of concepts: namely the idea of unity rather than fragmentation, that of the civilisation state rather than the nation state, that of the tributary system rather than the Westphalian system, a distinctive Chinese notion of race, and an organising political dynamic of centralisation/decentralisation rather than modernisation/conservatism. Given the nodal importance of Chinese unity, the year 211BC – marking the victory of the Qin, the end of the Warring States Period (403-221BC) and the beginning of modern China – will become as familiar to the world as 1776 or 1789. Qin Shi Huang, the first Chinese emperor, who not only bequeathed the Terracotta Army but founded a dynastic system that was to survive until 1911, will become as widely known as Thomas Jefferson or Napoleon Bonaparte, if not much more so.

There are many other aspects of Chinese history which will reconfigure the global discourse: the fact, for example, that China has been responsible for so many of the inventions that were subsequently adopted elsewhere, not least in the west, will help to dispel the contemporary myth that the west is history’s most inventive culture. For our purposes here, the voyages of Zheng He, which pre-dated those of Europe’s great maritime explorers like Christopher Columbus, can serve as an example for this process of reconfiguration. It is widely accepted that, in ships that dwarfed those of Europe at the time, Zheng He embarked on a series of seven voyages that took him to what we now know as Indonesia, the Indian Ocean and the east coast of Africa in the early 15th century. The voyages of the great European explorers like Vasco da Gama and Columbus marked the beginning of Europe’s long-running colonial era. For the Chinese, on the other hand, Zheng’s voyages had no such consequence. There was no institution in Ming China that resembled a “Navy Department” and therefore, as the historian Edward Dreyer suggests, “There was no vested interest to argue the case for sea power or for a blue water strategy, nor did China exercise what later naval theorists would call ‘control of the seas’ even during the period of Zheng He’s voyages.” Zheng’s voyages never had a sequel: they proved to be the final curtain in the Ming dynasty’s maritime expeditions as China once again slowly turned inwards. Zheng’s missions were neither colonial nor exploratory in intent: if they had been, they would surely have been repeated. They were influence-maximising missions designed to carry out the very traditional aim of spreading China’s authority and prestige in what was its known world. The Chinese had no interest in exploring unknown places, but in making peoples in its known world aware of the presence and greatness of the Chinese empire.

The world has become accustomed to thinking in terms of the nation state. It is one of the great legacies of the era of European domination. Nations that are not yet nation states aspire to become one. The nation state enjoys universal acceptance as the primary unit and agency of the international system. Since the 1911 revolution, even China has sought to define itself as a nation state. But, as we have seen, China is only latterly, and still only partially, a nation state: for the most part, it is something very different, a civilisation state.

It is this civilisational dimension that gives China its special and unique character. Most of China’s main characteristics pre-date its attempts to become a nation state and are a product of its existence as a civilisation state: the overriding importance of unity, the power and role of the state, its centripetal quality, the notion of Greater China, the Middle Kingdom mentality, the idea of race, the family and familial discourse, even traditional Chinese medicine.

Hitherto, the political traffic has all been in one direction, the desire of Chinese and westerners alike to conform to the established western template of the international system, namely the nation state. This idea has played a fundamental role in China’s attempts to modernise over the past 150 years from a beleaguered position of backwardness. But what happens when China no longer feels that its relationship with the west should be unidirectional, when it begins to believe in itself and its history and culture with a new sense of confidence, not as some great treasure trove, but as of direct and operational relevance to the present? That process is well under way and can only get stronger with time. This will inexorably lead to a shift in the terms of China’s relationship with the international system: in effect, China will increasingly think of itself, and be treated by others, as a civilisation state as well as a nation state. This has already begun to happen in east Asia and in due course it is likely to have wider global ramifications. Instead of the world thinking exclusively in terms of nation states, as has been the case since the end of colonialism, the lexicon of international relations will become more diverse, demanding room be made for competing concepts, different histories and varying sizes.

Although the west finds it difficult to imagine a serious and viable alternative to its own arrangements, believing that ultimately all other countries, whatever their history or culture, are likely to converge on the western model, China represents precisely such an alternative. As it emerges as a major global power, China will present a different political face to that of the west. Since the Communist government has presided over a highly successful transformation of the country, it enjoys a great deal of internal prestige and support, as reflected in the self-confidence that the Chinese display about their future prospects.

As a result, for the next two decades – perhaps rather longer – the Communist Party is likely to continue in power. Given its achievements, it would not be surprising, moreover, if it did not also enjoy a revival in, and major enhancement of, its global reputation, a process already under way. In this context, we should think of China’s Communist regime quite differently from that of the USSR: it has, after all, succeeded where the Soviet Union failed. It has also, since Deng Xiaoping, pursued an entirely different strategy, moving away from socialism and towards capitalism, including a significant dose of neoliberalism. China’s socialist legacy has nonetheless left a deep and continuing mark on society: the destruction of the old feudal elite in the Maoist land reform (in contrast to India); an attachment to the notion of a classless society even though this is now in rapid retreat; a strong belief in egalitarianism even among the urban intelligentsia; and the continuing appeal of a socialist vocabulary, as in the recent commitment of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to build a “socialist countryside”. Whatever the fortunes of the Communist regime, however, the main political impact of China on the world will be its Confucian tradition, its lack of a western-style democracy or tradition, the centrality of the state and the relative weakness of any civil society that is likely to develop. Even a more ­democratic China will be profoundly different from the western model.

In short, China will act as an alternative model to the west, embodying a very different kind of political tradition – a post-colonial, developing country, a Communist regime, a highly sophisticated statecraft, and an authoritarian Confucian rather than democratic polity.

The most traumatic consequences of growing Chinese hegemony will be felt by the west because it is the west that will find its historic position being usurped by China. The change that this will represent can hardly be exaggerated. For well over two centuries, in some respects much longer, the west, first in the form of Europe and later in the shape of the United States, has enjoyed overwhelming global pre-eminence. Since 1945, Europe has been obliged to adjust to the fact that it is no longer the dominant player in world politics. The sense of being less and less central to a world that it had previously dominated has been a traumatic experience for European states, especially Britain and France. One response has been the construction of the European Union as a way of mitigating the decline in the power and status of individual states. The fact that European dominance was replaced by that of the United States, however, has helped to lessen this sense of loss. Driven by Cold War antagonism towards the Soviet Union, an enhanced and transformed concept of the west was forged which in effect enabled western Europe, at least until 1989, to remain a major global player alongside the United States, even though it was very much the junior partner.

This was no ordinary relationship between nation states based on specific interests, however. On the contrary, the United States was a product of European migration: it had been built by Europeans (together with African slaves) and saw itself as the New World joined at the hip with the Old World whence it came.

In other words, history, civilisation, culture, ethnicity and race, as well as the exigencies of geopolitics, served to weld and underpin the western alliance.

The rise of China will have no such compen sations, either for a declining Europe or a dethroned United States. Europe, at least, has had some preparation for this eventuality: it has spent the past half-century adjusting to decline and dethronement. Even now, though, Europe still finds it extremely difficult to understand its increasingly modest place in the world and to adjust its sights accordingly. The case of Britain is most striking in this context. In a desperate attempt to remain a global power with a metaphorical seat at the top table, it has tenaciously hung on to the coat-tails of the United States, constantly walking in its shadow, seemingly always prepared to do its master’s bidding. Its foreign policy has long been a clone of that of the United States and its defence and intelligence policies are almost entirely dependent on and deeply integrated with those of the US. The UK’s dependence on the US is a measure not simply of its own weakness and of its failure to find an independent place in the world following the collapse of its imperial role, but also of how traumatic it has found the idea of no longer being a great power. The relationship with the United States has been a surrogate for its lost past.

Europe’s continuing existential crisis underlines how difficult it is for countries to adjust, not least psychologically, to a world in which their importance is greatly diminished. Europe’s decline, furthermore, will certainly continue into the indefinite future. Its remarkable role over the past 400 years will never be repeated and will become a historical curiosity in the manner of the Greek and Roman empires, whose present-day incarnations as Greece and Italy reflect the grandeur of their imperial past in little more than the survival of some of their historic buildings.

If Europe will suffer, that is nothing to the material and existential crisis that will be faced by the United States. It is almost completely unprepared for a life where it is not globally dominant. Under the second Bush administration, it sought to redefine itself as the world’s sole superpower, able to further its interests through unilateralism and shun the need for alliances: in other words, far from recognising its relative decline and the prospect of a diminution in its power, it drew precisely the opposite conclusion and became intoxicated with the idea that US power could be further expanded, that America was in the ascendancy, that the world in the 21st century could be remade in the country’s image. Not even the advances made by China in east Asia were interpreted as the harbinger of a major shift in global power.

The heart-searching that accompanied the 2007-2008 primary and presidential campaign around Barack Obama’s candidature did not, at least until the financial meltdown just before the election, reach the conclusion that the United States would have to learn to live with decline. Even the precipitous decline in the value of the dollar in 2006-2007 did not provoke fear of American decline, though a small minority of observers recognised that in the longer term the position of the dollar might come under threat. The United States thus remained largely blind to what the future might hold, still basking in the glory of its past and its present, and preferring to believe that it would continue in the future. Britain displayed a similar ignorance – and denial – about its own decline after 1918, constantly seeking to hold on to what it had gained, and only letting go when it could see no alternative. Indeed, it only began to show an underlying recognition of its own decline in the 1950s, when it became obvious that it would lose its colonies. The turning point in the US may well prove to have been the financial meltdown in September 2008, with the near-collapse of the financial system and the demise of neoliberalism.

The fact that China derives from utterly different civilisational and historical roots from those of the west, and is possessed of quite different geographical co-ordinates, will greatly accentuate the western sense of loss, disorientation and malaise. It was one thing for Britain to have been confronted with the United States – given the obvious affinities and commonalities that they enjoyed – as its rival and successor as the world’s dominant power, but it is an entirely different matter for the United States to be faced with China – with which it has nothing in common in either civilisational or political terms – as its usurper and ultimate replacement. For the United States, the shock of no longer having the world to itself – what has amounted to a proprietorial right to determine what happens on all major global questions – will be profound. With the rise of China, western universalism will cease to be universal – and its values and outlook will become steadily less influential.

The emergence of China as a global power in effect relativises everything. The west is habituated to the idea that the world is its world, the international community its community, the international institutions its institutions, the world currency – namely the dollar – its currency, and the world’s language – namely English – its language. The assumption has been that the adjective “western” naturally and implicitly belongs in front of each important noun. That will no longer be the case. The west will progressively discover, to its acute discomfort, that the world is no longer western. Furthermore, it will increasingly find itself in the same position as the rest of the world was during the west’s long era of supremacy, namely being obliged to learn from and live on the terms of the west. For the first time, a declining west will be required to engage with other cultures and countries and learn from their strengths. The United States is entering a protracted period of economic, political and military trauma. It finds itself on the eve of a psychological, emotional and existential crisis. Its medium-term reaction is unlikely to be pretty: the world must hope it is not too ugly.