Books about China ruling the world used to be prefaced by “if”. Now, more often, they are preceded by the assumptive “when”. Such is the age we live in. Martin Jacques’ 550-pager on the ascent of China finds little space to consider the question of whether its rapid economic progress is unstoppable. It ignores almost entirely the other popular – and perfectly plausible – premise for books on the Middle Kingdom: “When China’s miracle goes phut”.

Jacques’ book is based on the extrapolation that, by 2050, China will be the biggest economy in the world, surpassing the US and India which, by then, will be third. By virtue of what Jacques calls the “merciless measure” of gross domestic product, China will be politically and militarily the most powerful country in the world.

We might argue about these two central premises, namely that China’s GDP will inevitably surpass that of the US, and that there is an almost mechanical relationship between economic output and power. These are legitimate points of debate for other books. Yet Jacques can be forgiven for making this leap of faith and asking what will happen to the world if, indeed, China becomes a dominant power.

Jacques’ thesis – argued clearly and logically, if somewhat laboriously – is that China’s rise will overturn “western” assumptions about what it is to be modern. To date, the world’s only successful economies of any size – with the exception of Japan – have been European or, in the case of the US, of European pedigree. The knee-jerk assumption of globalisation, he argues, is that as countries modernise they take on western characteristics. “We are so used to the world being western, even American, that we have little idea what it would be like if it was not,” he writes.

Jacques contends, not unreasonably, that China’s continental size, huge population, racial homogeneity and confidence in the centrality of its own civilisation make for a country capable of redefining what it is to be modern.

If Britain was a maritime hegemon and the US an airborne and economic one, then China will be a cultural one, he predicts. As Chinese confidence grows apace with its decisive emergence from two centuries of humiliation, its overriding attitude will not be one of catching up with the west, but rather of regaining its rightful place as the world’s pre-eminent civilisation. “As the dominant global power, China is likely to have a strongly hierarchical view of the world, based on a combination of racial and cultural attitudes,” he writes.

China will draw on its Confucian roots, a paternalistic ethos that, he argues, is not readily compatible with western democratic principles. He goes so far as to suggest that it would be best for China, indeed the world, if the “present regime continues” for some time, a verdict that this former editor of Marxism Today might not have advanced, say, about the Chile of Augusto Pinochet.

Much of the future Jacques foresees for China can be found in its past. He expects it to reassert elements of its ancient tributary relationship with neighbouring countries, leaving them alone so long as they pay cultural obeisance. China’s idea of itself as a living civilisation – what he calls a “civilization-state” as opposed to a nation-state – means it will never yield to assaults on its unity, particularly when it comes to Taiwan.

Jacques’ overriding point is that, in future, “the debate over values will be rooted in culture rather than ideology, since the underlying values of a society are primarily the outcome of distinctive histories and cultures”. His contention is that, since China’s culture and history are so formidable, it will not bend to western norms. If there is any bending to be done, it is the west that must yield.

That makes the book a useful corrective to those who assume that emerging superpowers, principal among them China, will recreate themselves in America’s image. Yet Jacques puts too much faith in culture as the ultimate arbiter of a nation’s destiny. He dismisses the argument of Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, that the divide between east and west is more a question of time lag than intrinsic cultural difference. But in doing so, he goes too far the other way. He overemphasises Asia’s cultural predilections for community over individual, for social relationships over law, and for stability over freedom. In both south-east and north-east Asian culture, he writes, “the individual finds affirmation and recognition not in their own individual identity but in being part of a group”. These are sweeping statements that, at worst, sound like a Singaporean advertisement for Asian values.

Jacques’ writing on racism is revealing. Contrasting China with multicultural America, he presents it as an inherently racist culture more or less incapable of summoning a multicultural view of the world. “The fact that the Chinese regard themselves as superior to the rest of the human race, and that this belief has a racial component, will confront the rest of the world with a serious problem,” he writes. In what he describes as the “Middle Kingdom mentality”, he presents China as uniquely conflicted in its simultaneous feeling of superiority to other cultures and its inferiority to westerners who have overtaken it. These conflicted attitudes, for example, are common, and describe feelings of frustration and national inheritance denied (or at least postponed) in countries as far apart as Argentina and Japan.

In China’s rise, Jacques tends to see menace, albeit of a cultural rather than a militaristic nature. China’s view of itself as the centre of civilisation will, he says, lead to a “profound cultural and racial reordering of the world in the Chinese image”. But Jacques is more on the right lines when, elsewhere in the book, he talks about competing modernities. If, as he expects, China emerges as a world power to challenge the US, then modernisation is likely to be a two-way street, even a multi-lane highway, on which different versions circulate of what it means to be modern.

In the future, Americans may indeed watch more Chinese films and study Mandarin. But, by the same token, the Chinese will continue to learn from the west as its wholesale import of western capital, business practice and technology demonstrates. Just as Europeans and Americans may read more Confucius, so the Chinese will study more Shakespeare. It sounds like fun. The world is more likely to become multi-polar and culturally layered than recreated in China’s image. That is the whole point: China will not rule the world.

– David Pilling