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In April this year the World Bank’s International Comparison Program projected that during the course of 2014 China’s GDP (measured by ppp) would exceed that of the United States. Although widely anticipated to happen in the next several years, hardly anyone expected it to be this year. But, it should be noted, the West has consistently underestimated the speed of China’s rise. As a result, it has been, and remains, consistently behind the curve of China’s rise, with the consequence that it constantly underestimates the extent to which the world has changed because of China’s transformation.
Of course, economic power does not translate immediately and directly into political power. On the contrary, if we look at the rise of previous hegemons, notably the UK in the nineteenth century and the US in the twentieth century, there has always been a significant time lag between their emergence as great economic powers and their subsequent arrival as major hegemonic powers enjoying broader political, cultural and military as well as economic influence. That said, however, economic power was the fundamental pre-condition for, and prelude to, their emergence as global hegemons. The same will be true of China.
China is already a major economic power. It has been widely projected that by 2030 its economy could be twice the size of America’s. In contrast, its political and cultural influence for the most part remains extremely limited. It is important to distinguish, in this context, between the developing and the developed world. China enjoys very little influence in the latter, but its extraordinary success as a developing country is seen by many in the developing world as a model from which they can learn and which they seek to emulate. Africa is the clearest case in point.
China’s transformation is, of course, most strongly felt in East Asia. This is only to be expected: East Asia is China’s backyard. Profound changes are already underway in the region. The underlying cause is China’s rapid displacement of the United States over the last twenty years as the premier economic power in the region. As its historic sphere of influence, East Asia is the one region in the world where China has sought to exercise increasing diplomatic influence. China’s basic positions – for example in the South China Sea and the East China Sea – have not changed, but its ability to give effect to these positions clearly has. The US is no longer the overwhelmingly dominant power in East Asia, as it was until the turn of the century, and it seems entirely likely that over the next two decades America’s position in East Asia will grow much weaker. East Asia will become increasingly China-centric, a process which is likely to prove irresistible.
What then of China’s wider global influence? Certainly, in terms of soft power, it lags hugely behind the United States and is likely to continue to do so for a long time to come. There are three key reasons for this. First, China remains a poor country, with a standard of living only one-fifth of America’s. People do not aspire to be poor, they aspire to be rich. That is the main reason why people in the rich world do not look to China as a model. While China is poor its ability to influence is bound to be strictly limited. Even by 2030, when the Chinese economy could be twice the size of America’s, its standard of living will only be a little over half that of the average American. China’s relative poverty, in other words, will act as a major constraint on China’s capacity to appeal – its soft power – for several decades.
The second reason is that for more than two centuries – ever since Britain’s Industrial Revolution – the world has been dominated by the West, first Europe and then the United States. For over two hundred years, the world has become hugely familiar with Western ideas, institutions, languages, polities, history, religion, values and ideas. In contrast, over almost exactly the same period, China’s fortunes plummeted and only began to recover after 1949. As a consequence, the world – with the partial exception, for historical reasons, of East Asia – remains extremely ignorant about China. But this state of affairs has begun to change. With Europe in precipitous decline and America at a rather earlier stage of the same process, the high-water mark of Westernisation has now passed. At the same time, with China’s rise now well-established, albeit still in its relative infancy, the process of Sinicisation is well underway. Given the world’s unfamiliarity with China, however, this is likely to be a prolonged and relatively slow process, especially in the political, cultural and artistic realms.
The final reason is that China is profoundly different from the West. This serves to accentuate the point about unfamiliarity. Hitherto, all the major powers – with the relatively brief exception of Japan – have been Western or primarily Western. China comes from very different historical and cultural roots. It is not Western, never has been and never will be: it has been influenced by the West, but remains fundamentally distinctive. As a consequence, the West finds it very difficult to understand China: that is why it so frequently gets China wrong. The great challenge facing the West over the course of this century will be trying to make sense of China. By the same token, this profound cultural difference is why the growth of Chinese influence in the broadest sense – its hegemonic capacity – will be a long and drawn-out process.
This notwithstanding, the sheer economic reach and scale of China – which in time is likely to be far greater than anything the United States ever enjoyed – will mean that China’s influence will continue to grow apace and become increasingly formidable. Perhaps we should think of China’s growing influence as a two-speed process: its economic influence in the fast lane, its political and cultural rise largely confined to the slow lane, at least for the foreseeable future. China’s growing economic influence is evident wherever we look. It exercises a powerful gravitational pull on countless countries around the world, from Australasia and Africa to Latin America, from East Asia and Central Asia to Europe.
The speed with which China’s ascent takes place will obviously be affected by how China conducts itself and how other countries respond to it. Hitherto, China’s rise has been characterised by patience and caution, though arguably it became a little too impatient in its handling of the South China Sea question in 2010-11, with its reputation suffering a little as a consequence. But that remains the exception rather than the norm. Such is the profundity of China’s rise – its ability to change the world as we know it – that such patience and caution on China’s part are essential if it is to be successful. The great danger comes from those countries – notably the United States, and also Japan – who might, or already do, feel threatened and displaced by China’s rise and who might, as a consequence, seek to stall this process. A relatively benign scenario requires them over time to accept and adapt to China’s rise. At things stand presently, the United States would appear to be better equipped to do this than Japan, which remains for the most part in denial about China’s rise and the profound changes that the latter requires of it.
— Martin Jacques