The rapidity of the Asian giant’s rise is overturning western received wisdom about politics and the shape of the global future

The past two or three years have marked a new moment in the global perception of China. There is suddenly a new awareness that encompasses both a recognition of China’s economic transformation and an understanding that, because of its huge size and cohesive character, it will have a profound impact on the rest of the world, albeit in ways still only dimly understood. Until recently, China’s economic rise always seemed to be qualified by the rider that something was likely to go amiss – a rider that is now rarely heard. China has arrived and will increasingly shape our future, not just its own.

A number of factors lie behind this new global perception of China: its continuing staggering growth; the recognition that China is a major factor in the rise in oil prices; the fact that Chinese oil majors have become players in countries such as Sudan and Iran; the (unsuccessful) attempt to take over the US oil company Unilocal; the recognition that Chinese companies will increasingly become global players (of which Chinese involvement in Rover is a foretaste); the almost universal dawning that Chinese production is driving down the prices of footwear and clothing, and western fears for domestic textile industries; and the Pentagon report earlier this year warning that Chinese military expenditure will grow significantly, and that it might be driven by energy concerns and expansionary desires.

Recognition of the new reality is provoking an intense debate among national policy elites, including China’s. How should countries respond to China’s new position and power – and how should China use it? These are questions that more or less everywhere – except perhaps Japan – are still in the melting pot, not least in the US. Over the next decade, perhaps rather less, positions will begin to be struck that will have huge consequences for the world. But we can already list the ways in which this new perception of China’s rise has served to change the nature of the debate about China itself and about the shape of the global future.

In the 1990s, the process of globalisation was overwhelmingly seen as a process of westernisation. That hubris has receded in the wake of China’s rise. There are few who believe that China’s modernisation will simply result in a western-style state. On the contrary, there is an implicit recognition that China will be a very different kind of nation in almost every respect. Moreover, it would appear that China has been as much a beneficiary of globalisation as the US, perhaps more so.

A widespread belief that the 21st century would be an American century found even clearer expression in the aftermath of 9/11, with the pursuit of the neoconservative project. However, as doubts grow about America’s enterprise in Iraq, and more widely in the Middle East, there is a recognition that China is now a serious candidate to assume the role of “the other superpower”. It is projected that China will overtake the US in terms of GDP purchasing power parity before 2020. The American century could turn out to be more like a half-century.
There is a growing understanding that the future is unlikely to be dominated by the western world in the manner of the past two centuries. The major reason for this shift in perception is the rise of China and, to a lesser extent, India – which together account for well over a third of the world’s population. The world is likely to look very different from the one with which we have become so familiar – and comfortable – since Britain’s industrial revolution began in the 18th century.

From 1800 – some would argue much earlier – and until very recently, the centre of global developments was Europe. Admittedly, its hold became tenuous after 1945, but its bisection by the cold war faultline sustained its status – a status that was lost with the events of 1989. Now, without question, the most important region in the world is east Asia. It is economically the strongest, outdistancing both North America and Europe by some considerable margin. The main reason, of course, is China, together with Japan and, to a lesser extent, the Asian tigers. But east Asia’s centrality is not just a question of economic strength, even if this underpins it – east Asia is also where the future will be played out, where the world will first see the wider meaning and implications of China’s rise: not least in growing Sino-Japanese tensions, and in increasing pressure on the US’s role in the region.

The rise of China contradicts the commonsense view in the west, particularly strong in Europe, that the nation-state is in decline and that the future belongs to unions of nation-states, along the lines of the European Union and Asean. On the contrary, the rise of China – and India – marks the ascendancy of a new kind of mega-nation-state, which, together with the US, the EU, Japan and Russia, will dominate the 21st century.

In the 90s, after Tiananmen Square, China was overwhelmingly seen through the prism of human rights and democracy. For a long time it was virtually impossible to start a discussion in the west about China except in these terms, or when this question was a central part of the agenda. This remains part of the western agenda, but a much less important one in the light of China’s stunning transformation. The question of western-style democracy remains no closer now than it was in the wake of Tiananmen. On the contrary, the regime has not only survived but prospered to an extraordinary extent over the last quarter-century.

The final point is the least recognised and least discussed, but it is none the less a striking feature of China’s rise. And it presents us with a profoundly paradoxical feature of the era in which we live. The events of 1989 represented the end of European communism. The Chinese Communist party was expected to go the same way – wasn’t that supposed to be the import of Tiananmen? We couldn’t have been more wrong. What everyone expected never happened. A communist party is presiding over arguably the most remarkable economic transformation in human history. It is true, of course, that the Chinese party is a very different creature to its European counterparts, not least in its ability, since 1978, to undertake the most extraordinary regeneration. This paradox presents us with one of the great enigmas of the early 21st century.

But these points, profound as they are, are merely the hors d’oeuvre to the kind of impact that China will have on the world over the next few decades.