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Yet for all that China is beset by risks and challenges, the logic of geography, size of population, economic growth and cultural integrity mean that it is destined to be a big power, certainly in Asia and beyond. For the West, this poses an acute problem of management, to put it in a rather patronising way. For Beijing, on the other hand, the issue is one of claiming its self-defined place in the world. This is not a classic “imperialist” position in the Western sense of the term: Beijing’s approach is more irredentist than imperialist. The problem is that many of those in the “lost territories” — notably, Taiwan — want to keep mainland China at arm’s length.

When considering the contest, as we have cast it, between China and the United States, we seem to be confronted with a particularly dangerous manifestation of the “Thucydides trap” — the fear that a rising power provokes in an established one, which then escalates to war. It need not be like that. For it is the message as much as the material power of the West that has enabled it to be the dominant, most positive force in global affairs during the past couple of centuries. China, too, has a message, one with appeal to many parts of the developing world, especially when it is accompanied by huge investments not readily available elsewhere. But China’s version of soft power only travels so far. And its “capacity to convene” (another critical measure of power in a changing world), other than within a narrowly commercial framework, falls far short of that of the United States and of Europe. The rather thin relationship between China and Russia is a case in point. Cooperation between Moscow and Beijing is largely utilitarian in nature, grounded in grievance about the constraints imposed upon them by the US-led post-war order rather than the joint creation of a new, widely acceptable framework to replace it.

If there is one single factor that could compensate for what we might call these Chinese weaknesses, it is probably lack of self-confidence in the West itself. If so, the sense of retreat, withdrawal and self-absorption, strikingly apparent in both the United States and parts of Europe, may well be judged a dereliction of duty that created unnecessary opportunities for others to secure their interests and impose their values. Ensuring that an “America first” policy delivers peace, security, prosperity — and individual freedom — for those of us who are not Americans is probably the true test of the Trump presidency.


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