Scenario: China Discovers the Other Side of Drafting

07Feb10

China seems to be feeling its oats.  There have been shows of power and displays of arrogance.

That sort of thing makes friends and enemies.  It makes friends, because everybody wants to be on the good side of the bully.  It makes enemies, because nobody likes a bully.

There is a bicycling technique known as “drafting.”  It involves following another bicyclist very closely.  Following closely is far easier than leading:  the leader takes the brunt of the wind resistance.  Moving from second place to first can be a sobering experience:  suddenly it is much harder for the former follower — and much easier for the former leader.

As the world transitions away from the era of the American superpower, China will face new kinds and degrees of drag on its progress.  It will be less able to thrive by merely following in, and tinkering with, the American world model.  There will be — there have already been — glimmers of a new and different Chinese model of how the world should operate.

Some of those glimmers are not reassuring.  World powers usually serve themselves first, but a population of 1.3 billion seems to stimulate unprecedentedly visible and sometimes hamfisted grabs for natural resources around the world.  There are signs, too, that China may experience its own “Ugly American” era, enhanced by the impression that China is ready to send a million of its workers to mine your ore for itself.

There is also, of course, a markedly different Chinese model of public participation.  However offensive the imposition of American values and priorities may have been in some times and places around the world, not many will prefer the freedoms that China’s government seems prepared to offer to its potential economic colonies.

For the U.S., two outcomes are possible.  The Chinese model of the world may come to seem superior to the American model.  In that event, some of us may feel nostalgic for the way things used to be, but there will be no realistic possibility of a powerful movement back in that direction.  Alternately, the Chinese model may come to seem inferior to the American model.  If that’s how it turns out, then the U.S. can perhaps expect to borrow once again from the British model of empire:  for a century or more into the future, the U.S. may have its own Commonwealth, but on a larger and less tangible — one might almost say on a more spiritual — level.

It is conceivable, in short, that the 21st may turn out to be the century of the American idea, when each new Chinese economic and military success produces greater global faith in the American vision of what is good and important in private and public life, and greater fear that such a vision could be erased.  What we were not smart and kind enough to build throughout the world with our own wealth, during the so-called American century that has now expired, may yet come back to us in our time of relative poverty — in modified form, no doubt — from the world’s preference for the good things that we and our parents did achieve.  It would be most ironic if America thus learned, and taught China, that you must treat your neighbors well if you want your children to live happily and at peace.

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