The world is watching China through American eyes

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No matter whether in Brasília, Moscow, Pretoria or Washington, D.C., the question of how to deal with a rising China will be a top priority for most countries. Understanding China - still a largely American undertaking - will thus be of great importance, yet predictions about the Middle Kingdom's future trajectory differ greatly. Two recent books on the subject (Henry Kissinger's On China and Aaron Friedberg's A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia), for example, are based on the fundamental assumption that China's rise is certain, and that Asia's giant is basically unstoppable. This assumption, if accepted, limits America's options: The United States can either retreat and accommodate China (Kissinger's advice) or compete and brace for conflict (Friedberg's advice). Yet it is striking how little both authors pay attention to the potential pitfalls to China's rise. While many policy analysts point to China's glaring weaknesses (political instability, lack of soft power due to human rights abuses, environmental damage, demographic problems, etc.), few expect any of these to seriously threaten China's rise in the long term.

Exceptions can be found in odd places. Two years ago, George Friedman, CEO of Stratfor, a forecasting company, wrote "The Next 100 Years", in which he brushed off any talk of China's rise as nonsense, boldly predicting that China would disintegrate once its government would fail to assure economic growth, splintering into several regions akin to pre-Maoist China. Yet, as the the title of the book suggests, Friedman's work is only a semi-serious (he also predicts a conflict between the United States and Mexico, by then a world power, in 2080), and his assertions are based on scant evidence.

When looking at what policy analysts in general think about China, it is striking to note how few of them are based outside of the United States. This strongly affects their point of view: Friedberg, for example, argues that there is a "Shanghai Coalition" among US policy analysts, whom he accuses of cultural relativism and softness on human rights - a typically Western concern. While similar outfits may exist in other countries, the types of challenges the United States face due to China's rise are very different than those in, say, New Delhi, Brasília or Abuja, which have other yet no less priorities and worries regarding China. Decentralizing the debate is thus an important aspect to assure that assessments of China's internal situation are not overly colored by US-centric strategic calculations. The rise of China is a global concern, and other countries need to invest much more in understanding China rather than relying on US-based analysts. Failing to develop local expertise could dramatically reduce the space for manoeuvre vis-à-vis China, which has already turned, for many countries (such as Brazil), into the no.1 trading partner.

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