The big question in international affairs is how much clout will China have in the 21st century? One way to get at this unknowable future is to put China’s rise in comparative perspective.
By the mid-1990’s, pundits in China began to call the 21st century China’s century. This prediction was premised on the idea that the 20th century was the American century and that U.S. predominance would be replaced by that of China.
To be sure, as World War II drew to an end, the United States became a hyper power. Given the devastation of Europe and Japan, the U.S. suddenly had industry, gold, money, military, education opportunities and more that far exceeded any other power.
To avoid a repeat of the depression horrors that followed World War I, the United States helped establish win-win international institutions, with the Bretton Woods system, nourished by an open American market, helping post-war Europe and Japan roar back to competitive strength. The Soviet Union achieved military parity with the United States, by some measures. OPEC, meanwhile, amassed enormous wealth from oil exports and the growth of OECD nations was slowed with the oil shock. After just a generation, the United States was no longer a hyper power. With economics trumps in the game of power politics, the world was multi-polar.
By the 1960’s, the dollar was too weak to sustain the Bretton Woods system. Europe moved toward union. China entered the world market at the end of the 1970’s, rising by copying the state mercantilist practices of Japan and the other East Asian tigers in the world’s fastest growing region.
Soon, other emerging market economies – India, Turkey, Brazil – rose by taking advantage of the world market openness fostered at Bretton Woods and further institutionalized in the World Trade Organization. The ever less weighty G-7 eventually had to give way to a G-20, which better reflected the new geography of wealth, but which was too large and divided to do much. Some saw a rising East replacing a stagnant West. But Asia included Russia, Japan, India, Vietnam, none of whom wished to be subordinated to authoritarian Sino-centric leaders in Beijing. In short, while China’s rapid rise is awesome, its domination seems impossible.
In the 1980’s, Japan seemed to be becoming the new economic hegemon. But that ended with the crash of 1991. There was a passing illusion that events in 1991 again made the United States a hyper power – the Soviet Union’s disintegration, an easy military victory in Iraq, and several years later the wealth generated by the dot.com bubble.
But none of the basic changes seen in the 1970’s had altered. If the U.S. government believed the 1991 hype about a U.S. hyper power, that might somewhat explain its subsequent waste of wealth and prestige in the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Washington’s unwillingness to rein in the narrow greed of arrogant financial firms that hastened and deepened the self-inflicted wounds of the great recession.
What does this portend for a newly risen China, the world’s largest exporter, sitting on well over $3 trillion in foreign exchange (which buys lots of influence all over the world)? China’s clout soars as others experience capital crises.
On the defensive, economically troubled democracies will no longer be able to forcefully promote human rights and democratization in a world increasingly shaped by the preferences of an ever more repressive, authoritarian China. Still, the lessons of other rises and falls suggest that, while an authoritarian China will greatly re-shape world politics, the Chinese Communist Party government is likely, at some point, to become arrogant, to over-reach, and to wound itself because its beggar-thy-neighbor state mercantilism is globally unsustainable.
That’s no comfort to those seeking the Chinese government’s help, since 2007, in reflating the world economy to counter the great recession or to struggling democrats in developing nations threatened by Chinese-backed authoritarians. The Chinese age, however long it lasts, won’t be good for the values and purposes of the industrialized democracies.
Still, history suggests the 21st century won’t be a Chinese century. Hyper power isn’t easily gained or sustained. For China to become the world hyper power there would have to be an extraordinary triggering event such as an implosion of Euro-American finance.
But, for the foreseeable future, ruling groups in China will work to foster a world friendly to the values and ambitions of the Communist regime, one friendly to the purposes and interests of unaccountable ruling groups.
With this in mind, it’s important to take seriously Chinese government regime goals, even if Beijing can’t achieve its ultimate goal of making this China’s century.
Edward Friedman is a specialist in Chinese politics, is on the faculty of the Political Science Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.