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The West needs to reform to deal with growing Chinese power


The experts all agree that, sooner or later, China will become the world's largest national economy. That may not sit well with the West, but a new study says that it's the West which will have to change.


2016 or 2019. Those are the dates by which, according to the International Monetary Fund and The Economist magazine respectively, China will replace the US as our planet's biggest single-state economy.


The huge Asian nation has been racking up 8 to 10 percent annual growth rates despite the global financial crisis and is already the world's leading exporter. And that, say experts, makes it a game-changer.


"China's economic rise is the epochal global-economic structural change of our time," wrote Hanns Günther Hilpert - Deputy Director of the Asian Research Group at Berlin's German Institute for International and Security Affairs - in a just published article. "A global political order overriding the will of China will scarcely be possible."


Hilpert says that while Chinese growth will inevitably hit a few bumps in the road, it looks set to continue in the medium term. Others concur and add that China's unprecedented success is not just down to its huge (1.8 billion) population, but also to the determination, flexibility and skill of its leadership.


"China's strategic elites, and certainly China's diplomats, are as capable as their Western counterparts," Eberhard Sandschneider, an Asia expert at the German Society for Foreign Policy DGAP, told Deutsche Welle.


"This is one of China's main strategic assets: hundreds of well-educated and experienced young scholars and experts within China's political consulting apparatus are doing nothing but studying the West all day long - our debates, our politicians and our decisions both on domestic and global issues."


A major study published this week by DGAP's Transatlantic Academy underscored the possibility that China's rise could threaten the privileged position of the West and the US in particular or, as the authors put it, that a "Beijing consensus" could replace a "Washington consensus."


So how should the West, shaken by the financial crisis, unemployment and mounting debt, respond to the emergence of the new economic superpower? Should we be quaking in our boots at the thought of unstoppable Chinese competition?


The 'strange superpower'


There's strength in solidarity, say experts, with the Transatlantic Academy's report pointing out that the combined wealth of the US, Europe and Japan is still seven times that of China. And the authors also say the West should take the opportunity to learn from China and can count on a mutually beneficial convergence of interests.


"The real challenge to the transatlantic community is internal and does not come from across the Pacific," the report concludes. "Getting our own house in order is the number one priority as we respond to the global shift. China is indeed an emerging economic giant whose military power will inevitably grow, but it also faces enormous vulnerabilities and has an increasing stake in a stable world order."


It's not just German analysts saying these sorts of things. In an editorial for London's Financial Times newspaper, Asia expert Gideon Rachmann pointed out that China's economic might will not directly transfer into the sort of political and cultural dominance currently enjoyed by the US.


And he emphasized that a country as massive and ethnically diverse as China can hardly hope to avoid crises of its own.


"The debate about the future of China is in danger of becoming pointlessly polarized," Rachmann wrote. "One camp argues that China is the world's emerging superpower. The other insists that China is an intrinsically unstable country, at risk of an economic and political crisis. In fact, both ideas are true. China will be a strange superpower."


In other words, China's political future remains as murky as its future economic growth seems clear. And that raises the question does a Western-style economy necessarily have to coincide with a Western-style political system?


Capitalism without democracy


Back in 1990, in the wake of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, many in the West expected a political revolution in China as well. But the Communist government in Beijing suppressed rebellion and held on to power, maintaining the one-party state.


The revolutions in the Arab world this spring have given new momentum to pro-democracy movements, and the fact that the Chinese Communist Party will be electing a new leadership next summer presents, at least theoretically, another litmus test of whether economic freedom is truly a motor driving political reform.


"The events of the Arab Spring have shown that even a small event can bring radical change from one day to the next," Sandschneider said. "And the Chinese government is all too well aware of that."


But Sandschneider also says that China is likely to be run by technocrats in the short-term and that he does not expect significant moves toward democracy.


That would challenge cherished Western assumptions of a linkage between free markets and free political expression. Or as Rachmann put it, "If China remains a one-party state over the next decade…the confident Western slogan that 'freedom works' will come under challenge as authoritarianism becomes fashionable, once again."


Whatever scenario comes to pass, the West will have to get used to the idea of increasing demands from China as the latter's importance in the world continues to grow.


Managing those demands so as to create mutual interests and opportunities for cooperation will be one of the keys, if the West is to work with China, and not merely deal with the rise of an economically mighty new competitor.


Or as Sandschneider put it bluntly to Deutsche Welle: "Merely complaining about China doesn't do us one bit of good at all."

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