Will China dominate the 21st century?

If we’re not sending troops or giving aid, we sometimes find it hard to think about bilateral foreign policy. So how about this for a game: which domestic policy issue represents each country? This is not a question of which domestic policy issue is most salient in each bilateral relationship. If that were the question, the game would be somewhat easier: America is defence, New Zealand is livestock production, Saudi Arabia is oil. No, the challenge is to find a domestic policy issue which characterises a foreign country. For China, it would be climate change.

Like climate change, the rise of China may be the defining story of our generation. Both require internationally coordinated responses. There are those who predict that both will be catastrophic for at least a portion of humanity. And both are agreed by the vast majority of informed – and uninformed – opinion to be real and challenging.

In both cases, the two key questions are: When will it peak? And what should we do about it? It is the first of these which is at the heart of China expert, Jonathan Fenby’s latest book. If Fenby had taken more of an interest in science as a child, perhaps he would today be one of the world’s most intelligent climate sceptics. He is a leading proponent of the school of thought which says that the internal tensions in the social, political and economic structures of China are likely to cause the country’s rise to peak – or at least plateau – sooner rather than later. The final chapter of the book is unequivocally titled ‘Why China Will Not Dominate The 21st Century’.

Fenby has an enviable understanding of China and a remarkable ability to communicate complex ideas about the country. Few can match his analysis of the faultlines that run through modern China. From the crisis of ageing brought on by China’s demographic changes to his critique of an unstable and unbalanced economy, Fenby is incisive and insightful. His 2012 book, Tiger Head, Snake Tails, is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand modern China and where it is heading.

Which is why this new, slim volume, Will China Dominate The 21st Century?, has the whiff of the publisher about it. Fenby is a man of subtlety and detail. The title has neither. What does it mean for a country to dominate? Why use an arbitrary timeframe? It smacks of the lazy historian who concludes that the 19th century was Britain’s, the 20th was American and is now desperately seeking to complete a trilogy without having to work out whether the 18th century belonged to the Spanish – or, even worse, the French.

Despite the title, this is an excellent book. Fenby’s grasp of his subject matter shines through and the content has been updated since Tiger Head, Snake Tails to take in recent developments such as the Bo Xilai scandal and the ascendance of Xi Jinping. Fenby provides a compelling argument in answer to a question which many are grappling with – even if his conclusion won’t convince everyone.

The question that Fenby neither asks nor answers is what we should be doing in response to the rise of China. The risk of his analysis is that it gives succour to the Little Englanders who believe we can carry on in much the same way as before. Once again there is a useful parallel with climate change policy. If we adapt ahead of others and it turns out that the minority who think we’re overreacting are right, what does it matter? Even if the sea levels don’t rise, we will still run out of fossil fuels. Even if China doesn’t dominate the 21st century, it will still be one of only two countries to have a population of more than one billion. It will continue to rank near the top of world economic league tables. We have nothing to lose by adapting – ahead of the curve – to the new balance of global power, and much to gain.

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Adam Tyndall sits on the advisory council of Future Foreign Policy. He tweets @AdamTyndall

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Will China Dominate the 21st Century?

Jonathan Fenby

Polity | 120pp | £7.72

 

 

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