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China to Pull Up a Chair or Overturn the Conference Table?

03/07/2015 12:16 BST | Updated 02/07/2016 10:59 BST

Dangerous war aversion?

In 1914, the global economy collapsed because the then superpowers declared war; whereas today, it is precisely the aversion of the (Western) countries to war that could lead to the unraveling of the international system and the global economy. Western fears could push the world over the edge because there is nothing to stop China from pushing its luck.

China thinks it is normal to be the largest show in town. China has been the biggest global economy for two millennia. In 1820, it accounted for a third of the world's GDP. Viewed from this angle, China is simply on its way back to the top spot where it feels it belongs.

Who's going to lead the orchestra?

Beijing is going to play second fiddle for a little while yet as the US continues to keep the time with the baton. The US has many faithful allies, its military superiority is unparalleled, and its economic scope is such that it is bound to be the dominant world power for years to come.

Yet the trend is unmistakable. After all, the baton is not glued to the hand of the conductor - and he will find it increasingly hard to keep the orchestra under control. The US and other Asian countries have responded uncomfortably to China's tempestuous 'coming of age'. In combination with the Chinese yearning for recognition and additional growth, this could lead to painful situations.

Kill them all

Down the centuries, the international order has largely been shaped by the West and, since WWII, most of all by the US with the establishment of the Bretton Woods system/Washington Consensus. More often than not, the US and Europe rigidly cling to their privileged positions. China is increasingly convinced that the existing structures are purposefully designed to "keep it in its place". In order to break out of this "cage" it will, if need be, overturn the conference table and design a new one to put in its place.

This is where the observations of the late scholar Max Weber come in. The anthropologist David Graeber paraphrased him as he argued that, "The only real way to rid oneself of an established bureaucracy is to simply kill them all, as Alaric the Goth did in Imperial Rome, or Genghis Khan in certain parts of the Middle East. Leave any significant number of functionaries alive and, within a few years, they will inevitably end up managing one's kingdom."

In this China often finds that its concerns resonate with Russia. The two countries have provided each other with mutual diplomatic support during the Ukraine crisis and in connection with the large-scale protests in Hong Kong.

History doesn't bode well

For the coming years, China is bound to change tack repeatedly. Sometimes it will adapt to the international order and at other times it will try to adapt it - from the inside or externally. Its focus will increasingly be on the latter whereas tensions will rise steadily.

Unfortunately, history doesn't offer many reassurances. In the past millennia, the ruling hegemon has often found it hard to offer opportunities to - let alone make way for - other emerging superpowers. Meanwhile, the latter do not hesitate to seek confrontation.

The main danger is what the eminent historian Paul Kennedy warned against in 1987, 'Imperial overstretch'. This occurs if, "the sum total of the United States' global interests and obligations is... far larger than the country's power to defend all of them simultaneously." The US sometimes appears as if it is unwilling and/or unable to admit that it may have to limit its global power eventually. As President Obama said last year, "The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past and it will be true for the century to come." If Obama believes his own words, he may be in denial. This would be risky. Sooner or later, the Americans will have to make room at the table.

Top dog & underdogs

The US is still a giant in the political, military, economic, and cultural boxing ring although experts increasingly think it has feet of clay. Moreover, its opponents are no longer 'just' men and dwarfs. China is already capable of boxing America into a corner now and then. Mostly in areas where it has more vested interests than the US. And whereas Beijing cannot yet knock out Washington, potentially it could deliver a hefty blow. Perhaps to the extent that American politicians and voters will not be willing to pay the price for getting the upper hand.

An example from military history serves to illustrate our case. The US could have won the war in Vietnam if it had been prepared to pay a heavy financial and human toll. Instead, a dissatisfied population, rapidly rising costs, and an endless stream of returning body bags forced it to withdraw. In other words, asymmetric warfare can secure a 'victory' for the underdog.

There is every chance that in the future, more big dogs and underdogs of various sizes will pick a fight with the US, because they sense that Americans no longer have the desire or the wherewithal to police the world any time, any place. Therein lies the biggest threat to future peace and stability: the West with the US as its leader loath to take military risks while China (and possibly others like Russia) overestimate this geostrategic reluctance of the West, thereby unleashing conflicts nobody wants.