Why China won’t fill the void created by a diminishing US

The US empire may be in decline, but there are a few reasons why China is not yet ready to become the world's preeminent superpower.

China is expected to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy within a decade. This historic transformation is taking place at a time when the prestige and power of the US is in decline, following its failed campaigns in the Middle East and the global financial crisis.

If America doesn't get its house in order and falters, what will the world look like? Is China, the emerging superpower and the most likely challenger to the US, likely to succeed Washington?

There has been endless speculation about what the world would look like after America’s decline. But few speak with the authority and experience of Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser to US president Jimmy Carter, who also played a key role in the official normalisation of the relationship with Red China.

Brzezinski’s prognosis is both prescient and alarming: The world without American leadership will be inherently more chaotic and dangerous, and China may not assume that preeminent position. 

“No single power will be ready by then [2025] to exercise the role that the world, upon the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, expected the US to play,” he argues in his seminal book Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power.

Let’s examine the claim that China is reluctant and unwilling to take that leadership role. This seems to fly in the face of an emerging chorus of scholars and pundits who think Beijing is a revisionist power that is hellbent on changing the America-centric world order.

Brezezinski, like his colleague Henry Kissinger, both look deep into China’s imperial history for clues into China’s likely intentions. The former national security advisor to President Carter thinks Beijing is not like Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany that tried to dominate the world in the twentieth century, “China’s international posture is at this stage neither revolutionary nor messianic nor Manichean,” he says.

He believes that the country has a long tradition of calculated strategic patience, “prudence and patience are part of China’s imperial DNA”.

Nearly all of China's leaders have carefully refrained from claiming global leadership. By and large, they are still following Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim: “observe calmly; secure our positions: cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership.”

Apart from tradition, China is also incapable of exercising the leadership role adopted by the US. Despite China’s meteoric rise from a poor agrarian-based economy to become the factory of the world, it is still a developing country.

China’s per capita GDP would only be about one fifth of the US in 2025, when the country is supposed to be the world’s largest economy. Even by the middle of this century, China’s per capita income would still be less than half of America’s, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This is not to mention the US’ vast military superiority over China for many decades to come.

Like Kissinger, one of the most influential American strategic thinkers in the 20th century, Brzezinski argues the overwhelming policy priority for the Chinese leadership is maintaining internal political order. Beijing still faces daunting challenges such as ever-widening social inequality and rising political awareness of its more affluent middle class.

“A serious domestic political or social crisis, such as a repeat of Tiananmen Square in 1989, could do major damage to China’s international standing and set back the undeniable accomplishment of the last three decades,” he argues in his book. “That consideration is likely to incline the Chinese leadership to remain discreet regarding a timetable for China’s more rapid ascent on the global pecking order.”

However, he is concerned about the recent surge in nationalism in China, which is likely to disrupt the country’s relatively restraint diplomatic posture. He warns that “Chinese nationalism is a potent and potentially explosive force and it can be channelled and exploited by those in power”. 

A highly nationalistic and assertive China could mobilise the country’s powerful neighbours such as India, Japan and Russia. China could potentially become a target of strategic encirclement. “So far, a peacefully rising China has been gaining friends and even dependencies in Asia, but an assertively nationalistic China could find itself more isolated,” says Brzezinski, who has had experience dealing with former Chinese leaders like Deng.

China is a beneficiary and stakeholder of the current American-dominated international economic system. It is, in fact, not in China’s interest to see the US declining too fast, because no one including China is ready to assume America’s leadership position. 

The gradual erosion of the US-centred international system is likely to lead to more chaos. Don’t expect China to fill the vacuum. While many armchair strategists like to paint an alarming picture of the threat posed by an increasingly sabre-rattling China, it is useful to turn to assessment of grandmasters like Henry Kissinger, Lee Kuan Yew and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who actually know a thing or two about statecraft.