Perhaps in half a century, the world will be rather more interesting than the Sino-centric one offered by Martin Jacques

In my view there is both less to Martin Jacques’s thesis and more. The reason there is less to it is that the central principle he is asserting as a new one – that modernity does not have to mean westernisation – is in fact a very old one. It has been debated ever since Japan became the first non-western developed nation in the late 19th century, shocking the world by defeating Russia in war in 1904-05. Japan’s modernisation has never been westernisation, and it still isn’t, a century later. But the point and the distinction is less notable and less interesting than it might seem. Who cares whether modern Japan should be thought western or something else? It is just Japan, and to be cherished and studied and learned from as such. The same can and will be true of China.

Where there is more to Jacques’s thesis is in the fact that the tendency he is describing is not limited to the rise of China. What we are seeing is a broad transformation of the world, with many countries succeeding in achieving modernity. China is ahead of the latest pack of modernisers, roughly 15 years ahead of India. But China’s behaviour, whether politically, culturally or economically, will crucially be shaped not just, as Jacques implies, by its relationship with the west but also by its relationship with all these other modernisers.

China’s own freedom of manoeuvre will be more cramped the more that India too succeeds, and perhaps even starts to catch up with China. The idea of China setting up a new tributary system, dominating its region, depends on an assumption that it will clearly be the dominant power there. Perhaps it will. But, especially looking ahead half a century, perhaps it won’t. If – as I would suspect – it isn’t, then the world will be rather more interesting than the Sino-centric one postulated by Jacques.

Finally, I would just briefly question Jacques’s claim that China has existed more or less within its present territory for two millennia. There is a reason why the Great Wall is in the middle of the country, within tourist-distance of Beijing. It is that China has generally been much smaller than its present territory. Ask the Tibetans, or indeed the Mongolians.

– Bill Emmott