A study of China’s inexorable rise as a world power asks vital questions of America’s response.
The central theme of this excellent book by Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, is what he terms “easternisation”: the remorseless shift in the global centre of gravity from the west to the east. His theme is not new; indeed, the book is something of a latecomer in this argument. But he pursues this fundamental truth with an impressive single-mindedness and explores its ramifications from south-east Asia and Russia to Europe and the Middle East in an insightful manner, often providing little nuggets of revealing and unexpected information. Since the financial crisis, the west’s decline and China’s rise have accelerated, though many could be forgiven for thinking the opposite was the case given the constant refrains about China’s economic “difficulties”. Rachman, rightly, will have none of it. And he demonstrates how, by the year, the world is being redrawn in the most profound ways by this shift in power.
The major redoubt of resistance to the idea is the US. For the most part, it is in denial of the blatantly obvious. But Rachman shows how, beneath the radar, Obama tacitly accepts the fact but cannot admit it because no major US politician can, it being too dangerous for their reputation. Europe, on the other hand, has, especially since the financial crisis, come to acquiesce in the new reality, which is hardly surprising given, as Rachman puts it, “the European powers are in precipitous decline as global political players”.
Predictably, perhaps, Rachman is better on the US than China. At root the problem is that, while on the surface he acknowledges China’s distinctive history and culture, he nonetheless tends to treat it as if it is a western country. You can’t: that is the great challenge posed by China. International relations, for example, is a discipline that has been shaped almost entirely by western experience. Its relevance for understanding China, therefore, is strictly limited. Rachman bandies around the term “nationalism” as if we know what it means in the Chinese context. But for a country that is primarily a civilisation state and only secondarily a nation state, it is little more than an inappropriate cliche. Nor is this splitting hairs: it is about making or not making sense of China.
Rachman’s theme takes him on a most interesting and stimulating tour du monde. His discussion of the impact of China’s rise on south-east Asia, contrary to the great majority of accounts, is subtle and nuanced, avoiding the normal platitude that somehow virtually all the Asian countries are opposed to China. Likewise, his discussion of India is excellent, avoiding the triumphalism about its prospects with regard to China that too many in the west are guilty of. He is under no illusions about the dangers posed by the nationalistic turn in Japan; but he is perhaps most interesting of all on Russia, displaying a real feel for a country that too often is the subject of demonisation rather than understanding. In particular, I enjoyed his discussion of the way in which Russia has historically shifted between a European and an Asiatic orientation, with the latter now once more beginning to supersede the former.
Rachman believes that China will in time – and probably not much time – usurp the US as the dominant power in the world and that every country will be obliged to adapt to this very new situation. Relations between China and the US have deteriorated since 2010 as America has come to see China as a threat to its global primacy and China has begun to seek an enhanced role in east Asia.
Rachman is rightly concerned that this conflict could result in a catastrophic war. For the greater part of the book, Rachman suggests, or implies that the shift in power is inevitable and that everyone, including the US, must get used to it. But in the conclusion he seemingly contradicts himself by arguing that the US should resist China’s rise for as long as it can, or at least until China has a different kind of governance system, which, frankly, is unlikely. It feels as if it belongs in a different book. But this is not to detract from a most informative, readable and interesting piece of work that deserves a wide readership.