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Sunday October 28, 2012

Book review: China is still ascendant

When China Rules The World: The End Of The Western World And The Birth Of A New Global Order
Author: Marc Jacques
Publisher: Penguin, 848 pages

SKEWED as they may be, reactionary Orientalist perspectives of East Asian realities remain the norm in Western punditry and news reports. The problem has become prevalent in both conservative and liberal circles.

The problem for the West itself is that such a persistent misperception of modern China may undermine Western interests further. Martin Jacques’ When China Rules The World: The End Of The Western World And The Birth Of A New Global Order is intended largely as a corrective, looking at the historic phenomenon of China’s grand return to the global stage in China’s own terms.

My review of the first edition of Jacques’ book appeared earlier in China awakens (Star Bizweek, Oct 3, 2009). The present consideration is of the second edition published by Penguin earlier this year.

The first edition was subtitled The Rise Of The Middle Kingdom And The End Of The Western World. The second edition, suggesting an evolution, is subtitled The End Of The Western World And The Birth Of A New World Order.

Jacques and Penguin are just as grandiose now as before. The titling remains as presumptuous and alarmist, at least to Western conservatives, and no apologies are tendered in that regard.

The title itself can be a problem for those who judge a book by its cover. Jacques does not believe that China or any other country can “rule” the world today, only that China and things Chinese would predominate globally.

The second edition contains new data and a new section in the Afterword. For Jacques, international developments in the three years between the two editions only confirm and strengthen his central themes.

His chief arguments remain intact: that China will be dominant economically and culturally, it will not essentially be Westernised, and China will be ascendant despite multiple challenges.

This rise, mainly economic but also in other spheres later, is of epochal proportions. China’s ascendancy would result from both its own efforts and the decline of the West simultaneously.

The 2008 recession in the United States, followed by economic doldrums there and the European sovereign debt crisis underline the situation impeccably. In contrast, China’s GDP growth continues, affected only minimally.

Like many others, Jacques believes that China’s current growth model based on cheap labour and global raw materials is unsustainable. For example, China would need to stimulate more domestic demand to compensate for a slackening of overseas markets.

The latest data show that more and more countries have now made China their main trading partner. And as with trade, increasingly so with investment.

Thus, China’s economic gravitational “pull” is becoming unerring and compelling. Not only has China swiftly replaced Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, its relationship with the United States has replaced Japan’s as the most important bilateral relationship across the Pacific and in the world.

Analysts impressed with China’s economic growth once expected it to surpass the US economy in a couple of decades. But that timeframe has shrunk.

In 2009 Jacques cited the Goldman Sachs prediction that China’s economy would overtake the US’ by 2027. Sceptics scoffed.

In this second edition, he cites The Economist’s projection that the Chinese economy will become the world’s biggest by 2018. Now the International Monetary Fund predicts the year will be 2016.

But even when that happens, China will still be a developing country with vast human resources yet to reach peak productivity. That means when China’s standard of living approaches that of the US, with a comparable GDP per capita, its economy will be two to four times that of the US today.

Unlike many China pundits, particularly critics, Jacques believes China will not succumb to the weight of its own promise. He does not accept that China has to Westernise or democratise before it can fully develop and prosper.

Jacques also rejects the alarmist Western notion that today’s China is re-arming aggressively. He finds Chinese defence expenditure as a proportion of GDP falling between the 1970s and 1990s, and since then only keeping pace with GDP growth.

As expected, the very people he seeks to inform are often those who spurn his information. Jacques attributes this Western stubbornness to a mixture of unfamiliarity, ignorance, prejudice, denial, stereotyping, racism and Cold War ideology against a non-Western country that is communist, at least in name.

With such unwieldy baggage, the nuances and subtleties about China are naturally lost on the bigots. For Jacques, China is a continent-sized civilisational state whose history has seen upheavals and expansion on its Asiatic land mass, but not military adventurism in a littoral and archipelagic East Asia.

In response to critics of an increasingly powerful China, Jacques does not see China as a global superpower. He finds China historically absorbed in its own internal governance as it is a very difficult country to govern, its trajectory will continue to be tempestuous, but it is still a complex and sophisticated state and the home of statecraft, so it cannot simply be dismissed with an epithet like “authoritarian”.

For example, while critics fret over the People’s Liberation Army and the PLA Navy, it is China’s Coast Guard rather than the military that is a key player in the disputed island claims. Jacques finds no less than seven uncoordinated Chinese agencies involved over these claims.

A key question in the book is whether the United States will allow China the space to be a major player in Beijing’s own regional backyard. Jacques finds that unlikely, while also convinced that US efforts, such as its “pivot” to contain China, will ultimately fail.

This book still has major gaps that need filling. A central theme is that China’s coming predominance will be different from that of Western colonialism, but how different and in what ways?

Jacques also envisages an updated revival of the tributary system in East Asia, in which all the smaller countries acknowledge their junior status with regard to China. But what form will a revised tributary system take?

Another key point is China essentially being a civilisational state rather than just a nation state like other countries. But what can this mean in practical policy terms, particularly in China’s relations with other countries?

Such answers are essential to an intelligent understanding of a rising modern China. But we may have to wait for a new book by the author for further illumination, because any answers are unlikely to be accommodated by the structure of the present work, notwithstanding its already intriguing insights.

The first edition was already a vast interdisciplinary work of far-reaching implications, and the second version even more so. Few analysts as authors have achieved what Jacques has: combining the depth and rigour of academia with the readability and vigour of journalism in a single volume on a subject of great topicality.

The result is a serious and interesting textbook which, despite its 800+ pages, has sold a quarter of a million copies (and counting) in a dozen languages in its first edition alone. His critics have yet to match that kind of appeal in whatever they have to say.

> Bunn Nagara is an associate editor at The Star.

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