Can China Replace the West?

Lan Hongguang/Xinhua/Eyevine/Redux
President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach, Florida, April 2017

Gideon Rachman’s Easternization, his new survey of a transformed Asia, admirably does what so little writing on foreign affairs attempts. It treats with equal facility economics, geopolitics, security, enough history for needed background, official thinking, and public attitudes. Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, has an eye for the telling statistic and for the memorable detail that makes it stick. He packs an enormous amount of information into a short book and opens windows of understanding for nonexperts onto this immensely important three fifths of humanity. And while not directly concerned with the new American administration, the story he tells shows well why Donald Trump’s foreign policies could end so badly for the United States and for the world.

But Rachman does not, in the end, make a convincing case for the book’s thesis—embodied in its one-word title. The central issue, he writes, is “how the rise in Asian economic power is changing world politics.” His momentous answer is that “the West’s centuries-long domination of world affairs,” stretching back to 1500, “is now coming to a close.” Without doubt, Asia’s economic ascent has been extraordinary, but Westernization—the spread of the West’s influence and values—has rested on much more than its wealth and the military power derived from it. Those other elements—including open governments, readiness to build institutions, and contributions to others’ security and growth—are weak or absent in Asia today. Easternization is neither here nor coming soon.

Asia is the world’s largest continent and home to 4.4 billion people. But its story is disproportionately about China’s economic growth. Beijing’s official statistics are notoriously unreliable, but by most reckonings, China became the world’s largest economy (measured by purchasing power parity, PPP) in 2014. What isn’t so well known is how astonishingly fast the end came for the 140-year reign of the American economy as the world’s largest. According to numbers Rachman cites, China was just 12 percent of the size of the US economy in 2000 and only half as big as late as 2011. Such meteoric growth has been enough to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, finance the US deficit, and still allow China to increase its military spending at double-digit rates every year for two decades.

In matters of national security the momentum of Chinese growth has meant, for example, that while Japan’s military spending was triple China’s in 2000, it was only half as large by 2015. A rapidly expanding military has underwritten Beijing’s surging confidence in its own strength vis-à-vis both its neighbors and the US, and increasingly aggressive behavior in the South and East China Seas, where it has claimed islands, rocks, and waters also claimed by Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. It has built artificial islands and constructed runways…


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