Given its rapid and successful development, there can be no doubt that the People’s Republic of China will become one of the dominant global powers of the twenty-first century. Indeed, despite the massive problems that the country is confronting, it could even emerge as the global power.
But it would be a mistake to assume that the reemergence of so-called “XXL powers” like China and India will simply bring a continuation of Western traditions. We will have to deal with a different type of superpower.
Ever since the European powers set sail at the end of the fifteenth century to conquer the world, historiography and international politics have become accustomed to a certain pattern: military, economic, and technological power is translated into the exercise of influence over other countries, conquest, and even global dominance and empire.
This was particularly true in the twentieth century, when, in the wake of two world wars, the United States and the Soviet Union replaced the European world powers on the global stage. The Cold War and the period of US global dominance after 1989/1990 followed this pattern as well.
But China’s rise to global power, I believe, will not, owing to its massive population of 1.2 billion people, which threatens to overstretch the structures of any kind of government system and its decision makers. This is all the more true in times of rapid fundamental change, as is occurring in China now.
The permanent danger of overstretching the country’s internal political structures is unlikely to permit any imperial foreign-policy role. Insofar as this is true, the United States won’t be replaced as the dominant power unless and until it abdicates that role. This may sound simple, but it will have far-reaching consequences for the coming century’s international order.
The vital interests guiding Chinese policy are internal modernization, the ruling regime’s political stability and survival, and the country’s unity (which includes Taiwan). These interests are unlikely to change for a long time.
As a result, China will become a largely inward-looking superpower, which – precisely for that reason – will pursue its foreign-policy interests in a completely unsentimental manner. Militarily, China will focus primarily on its regional supremacy, because the country’s unity depends on it. Otherwise, though, the transformation of China’s economy and society will be all-important, because the regime’s stability depends on it.
For the Chinese leadership, this means that a growth rate of about 10% per year will be essential for a long time. Otherwise, the rapid and fundamental transformation of the country from a largely agrarian to an ultra-modern industrialized society could not proceed without destabilizing the system.
But this focus on internal growth will have massive political consequences, both domestically and in foreign-policy terms. Domestically, China will be the first country that, due to its sheer size and required GDP growth, is forced to pursue a “green” economy. Otherwise, China would quickly reach its “limits to growth,” with disastrous ecological and, as a result, political consequences.
Since China will be the most important market of the future, it will be decisive in determining not only what we produce and consume, but how. Consider the transition from the traditional automobile to electric transport. Despite European illusions to the contrary, this will be decided in China, not in the West. All that will be decided by the West’s globally dominant automobile industry is whether it will adapt and have a chance to survive or go the way of other old Western industries: to the developing world.
In foreign-policy terms, China will attempt to protect its domestic transformation by securing resources and access to foreign markets. Sooner or later, though, China’s government will come to realize that America’s role as a global regulator is indispensible for China’s vital foreign-policy interests, because China is unable to assume that role, other global players aren’t available, and the only alternative to the US would be a breakdown of order.
This US-Chinese tandem will run far from smoothly, and will do little but ameliorate crises and periods of serious economic and political confrontation, like that which is currently looming over the bilateral trade imbalance. Strategically, however, China and the US will have to rely on one another for a long time. This co-dependency will, at some point, also take shape politically, probably to the chagrin of all other international players, particularly the Europeans.
Europe could change the course of this development only if it presented itself as a serious player and stood up for its interests on the global stage. The “G-2” of China and the US would probably be happy about that. But Europe is too weak and too divided to be effective globally, with its leaders unwilling to pursue a common policy based on their countries’ own strategic interests.
Editors Note: Joschka Fischer, a leading member of Germany’s Green Party for almost 20 years, was Germany’s Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor from 1998 until 2005.
Project Syndicate/Institute of Human Sciences