THERE have been many rivals for America’s crown as the world’s greatest power. In the 1950s the Soviet Union threatened its military hegemony; in the 1980s Japan challenged its economic might. These days the pretender is China. The evidence of America’s decline seems obvious. The limits of its military power were exposed after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the flaws of its capitalist system were revealed by the global financial crisis that started on Wall Street. The West now looks to China to prop up its financial system, and to the Chinese consumer to stimulate the global economy.

Is the long era of Western dominance, first by European powers and then by America, finally coming to an end? For Martin Jacques, a British commentator and recently a visiting professor at universities in China, Japan and Singapore, the answer is clear. The title of his book says it all: “When China Rules the World”.

He begins by citing the latest study by Goldman Sachs, which projects that China’s economy will be bigger than America’s by 2027, and nearly twice as large by 2050 (though individual Chinese will still be poorer than Americans). Economic power being the foundation of the political, military and cultural kind, Mr Jacques describes a world under a Pax Sinica. The renminbi will displace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency; Shanghai will overshadow New York and London as the centre of finance; European countries will become quaint relics of a glorious past, rather like Athens and Rome today; global citizens will use Mandarin as much as, if not more than, English; the thoughts of Confucius will become as familiar as those of Plato; and so on.

All this makes for an interesting parlour game. Yet there is something too deterministic about Mr Jacques’s economic and political extrapolations. The author does not allow for uncertainty, chaos and error. He predicts that history is about to restore China to its ancient position of global power. But might it not equally push China back into self-destructive upheavals such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution? After all, the same Communist Party remains in power and, as Mr Jacques puts it, the Chinese state has never shared authority with anyone. He accords little importance to the thousands of protests in China, most of them against corruption and the loss of land. In his dense recitation of data, there is hardly a mention of the demographic crisis facing China, which means that the country could well become old before it becomes rich. He sees little risk of instability from ethnic unrest in Tibet or Xinjiang.

For Mr Jacques (the last editor of a defunct British magazine called Marxism Today), the Communist Party is a benign force, guiding the country through its spectacular boom while avoiding the collapse that afflicted the Soviet Union. He has little truck with the notion that free markets can only work, in the long term, in free societies; that liberty of thought leads more easily to innovation; that democratic states correct their mistakes more easily than authoritarian ones.

All this is a Western conceit, says Mr Jacques. Democracy and rule of law were not a precondition for the West’s economic power, but a coincidence. This argument is the most interesting (and contentious) part of Mr Jacques’s book, rather than his workaday account of Chinese history or the overlong prose about China being a “civilisation state” rather than a “nation state”.

The parting of ways between Europe and China came, in his view, not with the Renaissance or the Enlightenment but with the industrial revolution. Even so, the West’s success was not preordained. Until 1800, Mr Jacques argues, the most advanced parts of China and Europe had reached comparable levels of development. Indeed, China had built a form of steam engine before James Watt. So why did the industrial revolution begin in Britain and not along the Yangzi river? In large part, it was an accident of history.

Britain, like China then, suffered from a shortage of land. But Britain had coal, which replaced firewood as a fuel, and colonies with slaves providing plenty of farmland and cheap labour. The habit of war “helped to hone the European nation states into veritable fighting machines” and the incorporation of merchant classes into the elites encouraged European rulers to promote capitalism. By contrast, claims Mr Jacques, imperial China’s attachment to Confucian values of harmony meant its main concern was to keep order and social equality within its domains. So it was not the West’s superior values that allowed it to rule the world, but rather its flaws.

If colonisation assisted Western hegemony, the end of the colonial era after the second world war set the stage for the rise of China. Its economic development from 1978 has been “the most extraordinary in human history”, more rapid than that of Europe or America, faster even than that of Japan, South Korea and the other Asian miracles. Conflict of the sort that accompanied the rise of Germany and Japan cannot be ruled out, says Mr Jacques, but there is a good chance that it can be avoided. “China does not aspire to run the world because it believes itself to be the centre of the world,” he writes. Perhaps so. For now China is developing in collaboration with the West. It relies on Western investment and markets, and seeks stability abroad.

The West hopes that wealth, globalisation and political integration will turn China into a gentle giant, a panda rather than a dragon. George Bush senior declared in 1999: “Trade freely with China and time is on our side.” But Mr Jacques says this is a delusion. Time will not make China more Western; it will make the West, and the world, more Chinese.