Throughout my living memory, America has always been the world superpower. From military might to cutting edge technology, the United States has been the most powerful force to reckon with. Hence, such monikers as the Free World, God’s Own Country, and the land of milk and honey. However, a quick rummage through history shows this was not always the case. World dominance by a sole country has always been transitory. Prior to the World Wars, before American supremacy became norm, Britain was the most domineering kingdom. Their navy was almost unassailable and their imperial reach stretched from India to New Zealand. They colonized many parts of the world imposing their language and culture on locals. The Commonwealth of Nations is a relic of that era. Still, before British hegemony was the Roman and Ottoman Empires amidst many others. What interests me is not what caused this change but how declining superpowers react in the wake of the change especially at its incipient stages. Specifically, I am interested in drawing a parallel from history with the decline of America and the simultaneous rise of China.
Today China is the second largest economy in the world. This status, according to many reports, is about to get even better. 20 years from now China is projected to be the largest economic market in the world. While this economic size is not yet commensurate with other parameters for measuring superpower status such as standard of living, international presence and military might recent trends indicate this is about to change. In early October, 2011 when the European Union was stuck in the economic quagmire of having to bail out Greece it looked to China as a potential buyer of its debts. Chinese companies are all over the world now dominating every industry from household appliances to software technology. In late October , 2011 a Chinese scientific research centre successfully made one of the fastest computers in the world. World media put emphasis on three words: Made in China. China now has the second largest number of billionaires as at September 2011. So, it’s incontrovertible. China has the trappings of a superpower but like a jealous sibling America seems rather unwelcoming. This does not come as a surprise.
In his book ‘The Challenge of Hegemony: Grand Strategy, Trade and Domestic Politics’, Steven Lobell asserts that the way a declining world power reacts to a new order largely depends on the nature of the latter. According to him, ‘hegemons’ are more accommodating of liberal challengers than they are of imperialistic competitors. While this theory can be argued extensively, we can certainly say that China tilts more towards the imperial than the liberal in a pendulum swing. So assuming Lobell is right America is more likely to resist any threat to its international dominance and recent happenings suggest that is just the case. At the end of the Asia-Pacific meetings at Honolulu the American president, Barack Obama called on China to act as a ‘grown up’ economy. While he may not have specifically noted any rules China is breaking American officials have always accused China of manipulating its currency and abusing the human rights of its citizenry. Therein lies the catch of this new superpower and the American hegemons are very quick to point this out. This was in the wake of Mr. Obama’s announcement in Australia that America would increase its military presence in the region. These sums up the American response to China: More offensive than defensive, and more assuming than necessary. Some pundits have called this attitude a condiment for something akin to the Cold War but I reckon that might be stretching it too far. While we certainly cannot overlook the shortcomings of China with regard to human rights abuse, aggression towards Taiwan, trade imbalance and so on it is just as fundamental that Westerners, particularly Americans prepare for a new world order were China is not just known as the most populous nation in the world but the most powerful. Chinese economy would be the most important, Chinese politics is most followed and Chinese the most widely-spoken language. Already a number of jobless Americans are headed East in search of greener pastures. So, instead of American leaders focusing so much energy on mudslinging it should put its house in order so as not to be taken unawares when it plays the role of second fiddle.