(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF FORBES)
China Rises, While U.S. Declines: Interesting Times Of The 21st Century
This story appears in the September 2017 issue of Forbes Asia.Subscribe
There is an Arab proverb, inspired by the Koran, that says, “He who predicts the future lies, even if he tells the truth.” In other words: If you make a prediction and it turns out right, it’s sheer luck, mate.
With that caveat, let me offer not a prediction but a hypothesis. On the basis of current trends, it would seem the world is experiencing one of its most profound transformations in history.
In essence, for the last half-millennium, since the rise of the Portuguese seaborne empire in the late 15th century, the world has been dominated by the West. Japan was the only non-Western nation to emerge as a global power, but it did so not by challenging the West but by joining it. It never had Asian allies but rather three successive Western allies: imperial Britain from 1902 to 1922, while Japan was an imperialist nation; Nazi Germany from 1937 to 1944, during which period it became a fascist military dictatorship; and the U.S. since 1952, as it became a “Western” democracy and joined the “Western” alliance.
China is rising as a, if not the, great global power of the 21st century, and the U.S., after having dominated the 20th century, is declining in the 21st.
Until it entered its “era of humiliation” in the century-plus following the first Opium War (1839), China was a rich and proud power. It then declined precipitously: Its share of global GDP fell from an estimated 33% in 1820 to 4% in 1950–even though it had an estimated 20% of world’s population. Until fairly recently, the words “Chinese” and “poor” were synonymous. China has no Western allies, only two–sort-of–Asian allies: North Korea and Pakistan. Unlike Japan, China is not seeking to emulate any Western system. When you ask what China is about, the answer is “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
The emerging Chinese challenge is military and economic–but also historical, cultural, political, geopolitical, philosophical and ideological. Just as it was essential for the non-Western world in the 19th and 20th centuries to learn about the West, so is it incumbent on all to learn about China.
In doing so, it is difficult to imagine a better guide than Howard French’s Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power. This book is an outstanding font of knowledge and provides compelling insights into how China sees the world and its own destiny. It combines a bird’s-eye view of China’s past, present and possible future with a detailed worm’s-eye view, especially of its positions vis-à-vis Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea and vis-à-vis Japan in the East China Sea.
French presents the Chinese viewpoint. You don’t have to condone it, but to be awake in the 21st century, you have to understand it. You also have to understand how Chinese see world history and how it applies to them. Thus, Chinese thought and policy leaders are quite familiar with how the Monroe Doctrine allowed the U.S. to assert a hegemonic position in Central America and to transform the Caribbean into an American lake. A 21st-century version of that doctrine is being crafted in Beijing and applied to East Asia.
The rise of China is half of the global picture. The other half is the decline of the U.S., or indeed of the West generally. That is the theme of Edward Luce’s recent book The Retreat of Western Liberalism. Luce demonstrates that while Donald Trump as president is a potential disaster, it is a disaster that was waiting to happen. The decline of the U.S. and the retreat of Western liberalism imply, among other things, that the Western alliance that played such a crucial role in the second half of the 20th century is kaput. As Luce points out, while the end-of-history theory that prevailed at the turn of the century presumed democracy had won, in fact over the past decade, 25 democracies have failed.
Thus, the question is “whether the Western way of life, and our liberal democratic systems, can survive this dramatic shift of global power… . Donald Trump’s victory crystallizes the West’s failure to come to terms with the reality it faces.”
Recent events in the U.S. come to mind while reading this passage in Luce’s book: “The future of Western democracy looks bleak if American politics hardens into two racially hostile camps. Donald Trump consciously stokes racist sentiment, and has given a rocket boost to the ‘alt right’ fringe of neo-Nazis and white nationalists.”
So as China rises and the U.S. declines, eyes are increasingly turning to Berlin and Angela Merkel. Germans–who on the global leadership front have been there, done that (and failed)–are not particularly keen to have this glory thrust upon them.