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Peter R. BeckmanDecember 21, 2009
When China Rules the Worldby By Martin JacquesThe Penguin Press. 576p $29.95

The start of a century seems to demand prognostications. One hundred years ago, the rise of Germany, the nation most determined to change the international status quo, caught the attention of European journalists, academics and writers of speculative fiction. How would an ascendant Germany reshape the world? Was it to be war or peace?

Martin Jacques, a British journalist, editor of volumes on British politics, and long-serving former editor of Marxism Today, invites us to consider this century’s future with China. His basic argument is threefold. First, China is rapidly becoming an economically advanced state. Given its continental size and 1.3 billion people, we should reasonably expect it to be the world’s leading economy in 20 to 50 years. Moreover, “given its scale and speed, China’s economic transformation is surely the most extraordinary in human history.”

Second, as economics underpins all aspects of international power, this China will transform world politics, displacing the United States as the dominant state. In doing so, a regnant China will shift world politics away from the 300-year-old system of contending nation-states and toward a new order: a world led by a “civilization-state” rather than a nation-state, a world where international politics reflects what Jacques calls a tributary system of relations. In other words, we should expect a return to a world order akin to that which China created in Asia before the West “opened” China at gunpoint in the mid-1800s.

And the third argument? It appears to be something like this: We should welcome China’s rise and its reshaping of world politics, for this new order of things is likely to be relatively helpful for both China’s citizens and the world at large. But welcome or not, it is coming; and we in the West should be prepared to accept the inevitable with a modicum of good grace, and get on with working out an accommodation with this new order.

Granted, Jacques does not really evaluate this coming future. He does hint that some will find China’s dominance irksome, but then the domination of the world by the West and, most recently, the United States, has been hard on others as well. He suggests, for example, that “if the calling card of the West has often been aggression and conquest, China’s will be its overweening sense of superiority and the hierarchical mentality this has engendered.” Or: “In an important sense, China does not aspire to run the world because it already believes itself to be the centre of the world, this being its natural role and position.... As a consequence, it may prove to be rather less overtly aggressive than the West has been, but that does not mean that it will be less determined to impose its will and leave its impact. It might do this in a different way, however, through its deeply held belief in its own inherent superiority and the hierarchy of relations that necessarily flow from this.” Jacques leaves it up to the reader to weigh the pluses and minuses of a China-dominated world.

When China Rules the World is far more explicit in its extended, clearly presented thesis regarding China’s internal affairs. It concludes that China has reached the point of “economic takeoff” under supple Communist Party leadership and that economic modernization will not transform Chinese culture and values. He also suggests that it is culture that has tamed the party leadership, but it has also reinforced the central role for an elite-led government whose primary goal is to ensure unity and stability, and that in turn mandates continued economic modernization. China’s size, however, allows experimentation, providing reforms and privileges to some regions, denying the same to many others.

Jacques also devotes a large part of the book to an examination of China’s relations with the rest of the world, particularly East Asia. “The way in which China handles its rise and exercises it growing power in the East Asian region,” he writes, “will be a very important indicator of how it is likely to behave as a global power.” He points to Hong Kong as offering a critical clue. Once Britain and the residents of Hong Kong accepted China’s territorial claim, China allowed a different politico-economic system to prevail. This, Jacques asserts, captures “the very heart of a tributary state system, of a civilization-state approach.” However, to disavow the Chinese claim to sovereignty—as Taiwanese governments have done—makes China a real threat. That, too, apparently is part of the tributary system.

And for other states, particularly the powerful, what does China expect? China will remain a power accepting the status quo, Jacques argues, at least for the 20-year run-up to its achievement of economic dominance. It can afford to wait, for its historical tradition emphasizes patience, and it knows its position—at the center of the world.

Is it really inevitable that China will rule the world, especially given the economic turmoil of the last 12 months? Jacques tells us that his book has been a 12-year project. Just when he had it about nailed down, the global recession set in, causing him to scatter caveats here and there about how the downturn might delay the prediction. Besides acknowledging the crisis of the moment, he also points out some of the entanglements in which a rising China can become caught, particularly with the United States. China funds the debt of the United States, giving China a vested interest in ensuring continued American economic strength in order to ensure a return on its investments. The road to economic domination may be quite full of potholes.

While I am skeptical about the inevitability of China’s rule, I would urge wide readership of this book. At the turn of the last century, the drumbeat of dire predictions about a German-dominated world might have encouraged less thoughtful responses to German concerns and demands. Jacques’s assessment may encourage a more reflective response to China’s emergence as a key actor in world politics.

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