Even before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection in September 2008, war, scandal, economics and politics had plunged Americans into sullen self-deprecation. Commentaries in newspapers and books announced the Post-American World. China was riding high on the success of the Beijing Olympics, its grand coming-out party. It came out relatively unscathed in the first phase of the global financial crisis that followed Lehman Brothers’ collapse. Sustained economic growth and rising prosperity in Asia were shifting the global balance of power eastwards.

It was around this time that Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World first hit the bookstores, the certainty of its title confirming Americans’ fears. Four years on, an updated edition is out. The US is not fully out of the latest of its periodic bouts of declinist thinking, but, as I have argued in these pages, China finds itself in its most vulnerable moment in two decades (see “Dealing with a vulnerable China”, November 21, 2011).

While things may yet change to China’s relative advantage, the hyperbole and the certitude in the book’s title are at once a triumph for the publisher’s marketing department and a body blow to nuance. This would really be a good book if it restricted itself to “if” China rules the world, for Mr Jacques covers broad swathes of territory in geopolitics, geoeconomics, ancient and contemporary history, society and culture to present in one volume an assessment of what a China-dominated world would look like. The literary leap from “if” to “when” diminishes the scholarship in the work by creating a doubt in readers’ minds as to whether the facts have been chosen to support the author’s predetermined conclusion.

One of the book’s main arguments, that China will seek to transform international institutions and norms to its advantage, will not come as a surprise to students of history and international politics. Great powers do not become great powers merely by playing the game according to the rules. They become great powers by reshaping the rules in a way that bolsters their own position and restrains potential competitors. So, to the extent that China accumulates enough power, relative to the US and others, to impose its values and priorities on the international system, Mr Jacques is right to say that its “impact on the world will be as great as that of the United States over the last century, probably far greater, and certainly very different”.

What the book discusses but does not sufficiently account for, though, is the interaction of China’s values and priorities on its ability to rise to a position where it can impose them. China’s attitude towards race, which the author discusses with remarkable openness, is likely to create hurdles between its nationals and others. This is already discernible in the form of uneasy social relations along China’s borders as in Chinese projects in several African countries. Similarly, if Beijing insists on a foreign policy based on the Middle Kingdom mindset – which sees its neighbours as tributaries rather than sovereign equals – the countries of East Asia are likely to respond by tightening their embrace with global powers like the US and regional powers like India.

So there is an argument to be made that China must change its values and priorities if it is to become a world power. Values such as liberty, pluralism and democracy have universal appeal, even if nations of the world differ on the right dosage. These values have also acquired normative power over the last century and will be extremely hard to dislodge, notwithstanding attempts at a “Beijing Consensus” that emphasises political stability and economic growth over democracy and human rights. China might, at best, create bloc where a Beijing Consensus prevails (until, that is, the people shake off their authoritarian rulers).

In addition to China’s attitudes to race and its Middle Kingdom mindset, Mr Jacques distills two other important factors from his enquiry. He establishes that China sees itself – and must be treated – as a civilisation-state, rather than a European-style nation-state. This is related to the other characteristic: a lasting unity that it has retained throughout history. China, thus, operates on a “continental-sized canvas”, given its population and physical size. Novel as it might appear to readers elsewhere, we in India will be familiar with the challenging imperatives of governing a state that is both a “country and a continent”, is both “national and multinational”, and is both “developed and developing”.

This is a good book to have in hand as China attempts to navigate its way out of its economic problems, its messy entanglements with its East Asian neighbours amid serious factional strife in the Communist Party, ahead of a scheduled leadership transition next month. History is familiar with promises of long-term rise being dashed by structural weaknesses of regimes and failings of powerful individuals. Before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms of 1979, save Communist propagandists, no one would have written a book about China ruling the world. It was the same civilisation-state, with the same ancient history, with the same attitudes towards race and international relations. China’s fortunes changed due to the actions of a small number of human beings. Who is to say they can’t change again?

– Nitin Pai