The rise of China to dominance, if it occurs, will mark an exception to the observation that no nation once in decline rises again. The observation suggests that nations develop not in cycles but randomly emerge, rise—every civilized nation was once important—and fade. Resurgences are a bleak reflection of the old glory and short. One explanation for the repeated rise of China is that it always was totalitarian; its population never enjoyed wealth and therefore never passed through decadence.
Totalitarianism cannot survive in a global society where the Chinese see attractions of democracy and welfare. The communist government will succumb to liberalizing pressure, and democracy will both break the Chinese superstate into ethnic and regional states and cater to voters with welfare. That cannot be argued as an unwelcome development, unless one puts state above citizens. Confucianism emphasizes hard work, not redistribution, but societies are only so religious and exploit economic openings regardless of the ideological framework; citizens see welfare, common in other states, as such an opening. Communism acquainted the Chinese with redistribution.
China is an earthen-legs colossus. Government is strong financially because it regulates economy, suppresses wages, profits from few artificially competitive state enterprises, overtaxes—and does not redistribute. Chinese GDP is modest compared to developed economies, and its growth rate, high because the economy started from zero, would moderate. Large GDP does not mean strong economy; surplus GDP, an excess over the cumulated cost of living, does. Surplus GDP of China is minuscule, and insignificant in per-capita terms. Small rise of living standard’ expectations in rural China would wipe the country’s surplus GDP and budget through redistribution and infrastructure projects. Similar development forced Soviets to increasingly rely on bankrupting import and subsidies of food when the government could no longer leave the people to starve.
Chinese economy is vulnerable to investor flight if wages increase. Indigenous technologies are sparse; investors choose China for low-wage disciplined labor. With several countries nearby having similar culture, pro-business policies, and inexpensive labor, Chinese competitive advantage may prove fleeting.
Confucianism, though promoted work, stifled inquiry and thus limited education. Chinese students have reputation for cramming, not for original thinking. Respect for initiative, inquiry, and dissent—thus education, toleration and liberalism, respect for freedom and property, and rule of law to preserve them—is cornerstone of modern economy. Whether the skills of inquiry are genetic or cultural is not clear; different level of achievements between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews suggests cultural influence. Likely, both factors matter, and nations develop scholarly skills over considerable time spans. China is unlikely to travel the Japanese path of basic goods – copycat – invention anytime soon.
The Soviet Union and hardcore monotheist societies learned that suppressing dissent suffocates inquiry and technological advance. China has to choose between totalitarianism and information-age economy; the last would liberalize China and explode it into several less significant states.
Western societies advanced slowly, and then became rich and decadent. Slower, harder earned was the growth milder was the decline. Economically undeveloped societies like China experienced technological windfall; people there became relatively affluent too fast. Decadence kicked in already in the second generation after the economic boom.
Economic importance of Chinese diaspora is exaggerated. People opt for a trust stemming from similar values and kinship only when stronger trust, based on law, is unavailable. Chinese preference for dealing with other Chinese in lawless societies fades in legalistic countries, and might succumb to snobbish preference of dealing with successful locals.
Relative cultural homogeneity, fading booms in Europe bringing investment to America but not significantly competing with it, low security and government costs, and liberalism created the American miracle. China is not that lucky, and might fall in the minor-wealth trap: economic improvements decrease famines and lawlessness, people rely on government less and demand more freedom, suppressed groups reemerge, states hesitate to use force and cannot buy compliance, and dissolve. This development is not necessarily unwelcome: after initial setting of borders and resettling of ethnic and religious groups to form substantially homogeneous locales, violence would subside. After initial authoritarian rule, necessitated by conflicts, new states, comfortably settled by people of similar cultural background, might liberalize and develop economically.
No regional state could oppose China when military strength was a matter of size and numbers. Nuclear weapons of China’s neighbors curtail its claim to dominance. When neighbors become affluent and shrink from nuclear exchange in conflict with China, their integration in the world economy and society would largely protect them against China. Huge territory and population make totalitarian China imperceptive to nuclear deterrence. But though killing a million Chinese a day would not affect population statistically, it would destroy economic and offensive capabilities, and so China would likely stop short of the total war. Unwarranted fears of China’s expansion are self-fulfilling prophecy: hostile containment would make China apprehensive, and spur the arms race.
Budgetary pressures caused by redistribution demands would limit the Chinese ability to politically support Muslims and Russians against the Western hegemony. Muslim countries are potentially a major market for Chinese weapons, and Russia – for Chinese investment, but avoiding sanctions and arms race with the West is more important. Chinese saw the contrary example of the USSR. Natural contempt of the losers, dislike of Muslim and Orthodox xenophobic arrogance, and sharing of the Western drive for profit instead of odd religions and ideology would add to make Sino-Islamic-Orthodox axis improbable.
Japan has a better chance than China to hegemony. Facing no separatist pressures, Japan would remain large and populous enough for empire. Technological edge and no burden of outdated conventional army allow it to build new generation military forces. Its people are determined and warlike. The only major bottleneck, dependence on far shipments of oil, could be circumvented with nuclear mini-reactors and hydrogen fuel. Government budget is filled by taxes on high profits from innovative products, not Chinese-style low-margin income vulnerable to market fluctuations. Japan has good reasons for military build-up: nuclear threats from China and Korea, and encroachment of Chinese investors into Japan’s zone of influence in South East Asia. Given the technological superiority of its military, Japan could expect to conquer without protracted wars, and so not devastate countries it exports to and invests in. A state cannot realize ambitions only economically; Japan might look for political, thus military position, and even carp at the West if it resorts to massive anti-Japanese protectionism.
Very poor countries can be big: people demand little freedom, and governments keep diverse groups obedient. Very affluent countries can be big: welfare states bribe diverse groups into compliance. America uniquely jumped from the first to the last option, uniting the country by force, then rapidly developing an economy and redistribution system too attractive to abandon. Several advantages combined in America: immigrants more industrious than the average population
Voters are the only power in democracies. No independent power offsets them, as does in constitutional monarchies, corporate fascist states, or private colonies. Interest groups cannot lobby their goals unreservedly but must cast them in terms benefiting many voters. Popular democracies traverse the path of concessions to voters. Wealth is concentrated and percolates slowly down. In rapidly developing societies, accumulation by the lucky or industrious few is faster than percolation, increasing the concentration. More people vote in favor of redistribution than against it, and it is easy to implement. Demands for redistribution increase faster than economic capabilities and continue to grow after economic growth peaks. Democracy is economically self-extinguishing.
States cannot bribe diverse groups into compliance indefinitely. Wealth is distributed vaguely along ethnic and cultural lines, fueling antagonism. At some point, the more affluent groups question why they should subsidize culturally different groups. Groups, unlike individuals, cannot reach equilibrium. Stability depends on myriad independent interactions among minor participants; groups are too large, and even minor moves upset the balance. Large democratic states, therefore, dissolve. Economic growth delays dissolution because affluent groups do not mind sparing some of their unusual income. Affluent global society is unlikely to include countries large enough to dominate, especially when the proliferation of nuclear weapons lets any country owning them deter intrusion in its affairs. In a homogenous world, every country minds its own business.
Several major countries would not make the world multi-polar; the role of poles would pass to international organizations. States would adhere to them in the historically common fashion of multiple allegiances and overlapping alliances: each country joins several organizations, and each organization assembles a diverse set of countries based on ad hoc interests. Rigid alliances cannot be sustained in the dynamic world.
The balance of power game is too complicated for short-term rulers in liberal democracies, and they prefer simplified schemes, dividing the world into rigid black-and-white alliances based on religion, civilization, political structure, etc. But complex environments refuse to operate according to simple schemes.
The world, like any system, tends to dynamic homogeneity and away from entities large enough to upset homogeneity. The world of mass culture and economic interconnection will organize not along weak civilizational lines, but, like previous homogenous societies (the Italian city-states, for example), in a complex adaptive system of alliances, created ad hoc and dissolved as easily. Those who seek order and stability in inherently dynamic international relations are bound to be disappointed.
Regardless of inexpensive transportation, most interactions are local; people just don’t think globally. Economic advantages previously available only far away, become available nearby; unique foreign factories and technologies are copied locally. Intra-regional trade steadily increases since 1980s after the inter-regional trade briefly surged in mid-twentieth century. In the homogenous world, opportunities far and near are similar. Rational profit-seeking entrepreneurs would act locally or regionally, and think likewise. States, too, would curtail their power-projection ambitions, made possible by temporarily qualitative disparity of military technology available to the empires and colonies. Increased complexity of economically advancing societies makes interventions unpredictable and thus unprofitable.
Shifts in the international order are painful when the power centers are huge, and disrupt the system. The order with many small players, without rigid arrangements such as borders or detailed laws applied on large scale, would be comfortable.
Empires that lasted for centuries minimized the disturbance they caused, leaving the colonies to develop naturally, and only collected mild taxes or exploited resources irrelevant to locals, and protected only the vital interests of the empire. Installing democracy or otherwise changing dependent countries tremendously upsets the global society, and drains the empires financially: structuring chaos is not just futile, but expensive. Complex adaptive systems resist active strategies. Systems suppress the objects that disturb them.
Developments in military technology for a while excluded poor countries from the list of relevant aggressors; they could fight only similarly undeveloped countries with primitive means, and to no detriment of civilized countries. As always, technology and strategy adjusted, and now poor countries again threaten decadent societies: with asymmetric warfare and non-conventional weapons; the politically correct names for tribute are aid and concessions. Tribute is synchronically reasonable arrangement: minor expenses instead of relentless wars. Though acquiescence increases demands, tribute might be cheaper than wars even over a period. Developed countries go down regardless of the policy because the higher they rise, the higher is the prize of blackmailing them, and they end up besieged, directly or by costly demands. Empires could ignore requests for aid and overwhelmingly punish encroachment on its interests to discourage repetition; they could even force foreign governments to quash the terrorists who pursue asymmetric warfare. Decadence, however, is inescapable. Accommodation, acquiescence, and ransom replace no-nonsense policies, and developed states fall.
The West declines only relatively: dissemination of technologies and transportation improvements allowed rapid development of the Third World countries from zero level. As their growth subside, Western share of the world GDP would stabilize. Developed countries could prolong their preferred position by other means, such as brain draining rising economies.