Thursday, August 31, 2006

[far-east] 2020 vision in anticipating china

I’m reprinting this Melbourne Age August 21, 2006 article on China, by Professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas, as another take and an authoritative one, on the rising hegemony of that country:

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union 15 years ago, there has been only one megapower — the United States. For the first 10 years, the dominance of the US was seen as a great opportunity to rebuild the global institutional architecture in favour of a more democratic, rational and equitable system.

The United Nations, partially crippled during the Cold War by superpower rivalry, acquired a new lease of life and UN peacekeeping operations multiplied.

In the past five years, however, US hegemony has been viewed much less favourably with opinion polls across the world recording unprecedented levels of distrust of the US Governments throughout the world.

The US is still the only megapower, but this could change in the next 15 years. While no country is close to present levels of US defence spending, military prowess is only one aspect of megapower status.

Power in international affairs stems from economic strength, political influence, cultural attraction and the ability to use coercive diplomacy. It is this combination that makes the US a megapower despite the fact that it is not supremely dominant in any of these areas except the military.

Other countries might aspire to megapower status in the next 15 years, but only one — China — is likely to achieve it. Its annual rate of economic growth is likely to be at least double that of the United States, while its population is five times the size.

This will make China not only the second-largest economy in the world by 2020, but also the main trading partner for a wide range of countries. With economic power will come political influence, the growth of the Chinese language (now being promoted all over the world by the Confucius Institutes) and a steady rise in military spending.

China already enjoys many of the trappings of a great power, thanks to its permanent seat on the UN Security Council and the ability to exercise a veto. [Add to this the Beijing Olympics.]

The world in 2020 is therefore likely to be dominated by two megapowers and this will require a difficult process of adjustment by all other states. Both countries are strong upholders of the principles of national sovereignty for themselves with a great reluctance to commit to international laws or treaties that could compromise or restrict their ability to act as sovereign powers.

The US, believing itself to be a force for good in international affairs, is less respectful of the national sovereignty of other states while China is a strong upholder of the principle of non-interference, fearing that anything else might set a precedent to be used against it in the future. China, [see earlier article on stirring the pot].

However, as it gains in confidence, it may move closer to the US position by 2020.

Most countries will hope for good relations with China and the US and this may not be easy particularly [for Australia] in Asia and the Pacific. Just as the US used its growing power a century ago to reduce the influence of the United Kingdom in the Caribbean Basin and become the regional hegemon, so China will want to use its economic strength to reduce US influence in the regions of the world closest to its borders.

The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, at China's prodding, has already called for an end to US bases in Central Asia. And China will have accumulated a great deal of "soft" power by 2020, allowing it to strengthen commercial ties with "friendly" countries.

China is not, and will not be, an easy country with which to collaborate. Its one-party system is likely still to be intact in 2020 with nationalism having replaced communism as the prevailing ideology.

Some countries — notably Japan — have already made clear that an even closer alliance with the US is the best insurance policy against the "peaceful rise" of China. This is understandable — if shortsighted.

China's relative importance to Japan and other Asia-Pacific countries will increase by 2020, while the relative economic importance of the US is likely to diminish. Even Japan, therefore, can be expected to reach a new kind of accommodation with China in the next decade.

For the US, China's emergence as a megapower is likely to be particularly traumatic. The US State Department has called for China to become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system, but the US has not set a good example and China is no more likely than the US to commit to international treaties that restrict its freedom to manoeuvre.

Containment is no longer an option, while strategic rivalry is fraught with danger. The risk of the two megapowers, therefore, carving out spheres of influence — with China dominant in the Asia-Pacific region and the US in the Americas and perhaps the Middle East — is very real.

This is an outcome that other countries — Australia included — will need to resist. For small and medium-size powers, the greatest protection of national security lies in multilateral institutions and the rule of law.

China does need to be encouraged to become a responsible stakeholder, but it is the pressure from other states in the international community — not from the US — that is more likely to make this happen. And China must come to understand that good relations with its neighbours, including Australia, depend on this.

The year 2020 once seemed very far away, but no longer. Democracies, such as Australia, are often fixated on the short term for understandable electoral reasons. However, the big challenges — climate change, the loss of biodiversity, the risk of pandemics, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and energy security — all require long-term strategic thinking.

The emergence of China as a megapower in the next 15 years requires such strategic thought; it cannot be reduced simply to a commercial opportunity.

Professor Bulmer-Thomas is director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), London. He will give the inaugural Sir Zelman Cowen Oration tomorrow for the Australian Institute of International Affairs Victoria, an event supported by The Age. His visit is hosted by the Monash Institute for Study of Global Movements.

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