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How China’s growing importance shifting the world

Posted by hkarner - 7. August 2016

Date: 04-08-2016
Source: The Economist
Subject: Geopolitics: East, West home is best

Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century.
By Gideon Rachman. Bodley Head; 280 pages; £20.

JULY brought the clearest sign yet of how China’s growing power is changing the world order. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, a tribunal set up by Western powers in 1899 and designated by the UN as an arbiter of disputes under its Law of the Sea Convention, rejected China’s claims to any historic right to control the South China Sea. The case had been brought by the Philippines, with unofficial backing from America. But China simply ignored it.

The Philippines, and its Western sympathisers, won the argument but will probably lose the battle. Conventional power politics trumps international law. That is scarcely a new insight, alas, but what is new is to see a non-Western nation displaying this truth so brazenly. That is what Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times (and before that a senior writer at The Economist for 15 years) means by “Easternisation”, which is both the title of his book and what he says is the defining trend of our age.

The word is rather clunky and a tad misleading, as becomes clear when Mr Rachman tries a bit too hard to apply it to almost every foreign policy theme he can find. Has Russia really been “Easternising” simply by turning against the West, annexing Crimea and seeking to restore its domination of the former Soviet states around its borders? It certainly hasn’t found an especially warm embrace in China.

Does the West’s impotence in the Middle East and north Africa really contribute to “Easternisation” in any way other than the fact that the Gulf states sell a lot of oil to China? The continued disaster in Syria, Iraq and Libya is huge and hugely disturbing, but this is scarcely the first time in the post-imperial era that external intervention has been found wanting; it offers no particular advantage to the East, beyond evidence of Western discomfort.

What this book is really about, and is very good at describing, is the growing impact of China on its neighbours, on the world and on the liberal, mostly rules-based order that the West set up, principally after 1945. As historians have been saying ever since China’s rise caught their notice in the 1990s, this ought to be called “normalisation”, since until 1800 the world’s biggest economies were its most populous countries, China and India.

Such normalisation was nicely summarised in “The Post-American World”, by Fareed Zakaria, an Indian-born American journalist, in 2008. This is the point that Mr Rachman is underlining and updating here. The crucial “-isation” question, though, is neither about normality nor West-versus-East, but rather about whether a more even global distribution of power will bring stability or not.

Mr Rachman hopes it will, though he fears that it won’t. Ranged on one side is a seemingly immutable Chinese aspiration to at least be treated just like America as a great power and, if circumstances permit, even to take over leadership. That aspiration is what lies behind the country’s claim, first put forward formally by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in the 1940s, to the South China Sea: a great power needs to control the seas around its coasts, the logic goes, and China used to do so 2,000 years ago under its Han Dynasty, so it must be entitled to do so now.

Ranged on the other side is what a senior American official, quoted by Mr Rachman, terms his country’s “addiction to primacy”. Western countries have not truly dominated the world since the collapse of Europe’s empires in the 1940s and 1950s, but they have certainly led it, with America at the forefront. America has both championed international law and institutions and demanded the right to be exempt from them when it chooses. Coping with a more equal world, accommodating new powers, ought to be possible in principle. But practice could be different.

Mr Rachman’s book may produce a wry smile in Singapore. Until recently, one of Asia’s most provocative current-affairs writers, a retired diplomat called Kishore Mahbubani, was producing book after book lambasting Western journalists like Mr Rachman for their pro-Western bias and failure to acknowledge Asia’s success. One of Mr Mahbubani’s recent books, however, was called “The Great Convergence”, arguing that West and East were now blending together. He and Mr Rachman seem to have passed each other in mid-air.

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