When pundits predicted China's rise to dominance twenty or thirty years ago, many were dismissive. No longer. But many of those recent converts to the new orthodoxy have gone to the other extreme; from once dismissing China, they've gone into hysterical paranoia about China putting the rest of the world in a virtual stranglehold.
This is misplaced, and ignorant. Certainly China is the pre-eminent economic and trading power in the world, but its military power still lags far behind that of the USA. The real question is to understand what the Chinese themselves want out of the world.
Western thinkers who spread threats of World War Three between China and the USA base this thinking on their own logic: Western powers spread their might over the the rest of the globe through war, colonisation and settling to other parts of the world over several centuries. They assume that China wants the same thing: dominance through control of territory. But China's methods and aims are more subtle. You only have to compare European and Chinese history to get an understanding of that.
A overview of how the West and China came to evolve over two thousand years to their current state of human evolution (eg. through advances in science and technology) is informative.
For a period of more than one thousand years (roughly between 300BC to 1300AD) China was consistently ahead of Europe in most areas of technology and scientific research.
Europeans think that logic and philosophy are Greek inventions, but the Chinese had similar philosophical schools around the same time period, possibly even slightly earlier, known as the "School of Names". Inventions such as the abacus, the recording of comets, the first building of the Great Wall of China, and the crossbow, were all invented long before the birth of Christ. The ancient Greeks had also invented the crossbow, but this weapon quickly went out of use, and was not widely used again for more than one thousand years in Europe. The Chinese, however, continued to improve upon it. Also in the area of weaponry, the ancient Chinese invented a sort of early halberd (a spear that combines an axe with a dagger-head), that was not widely used in Europe till the Middle Ages.
These are just a few examples. There are then the so-called "Four Great Inventions" in early China, while Europe was experiencing the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome. These were the compass, paper, printing, and gunpowder. Although some of these inventions still needed time to improve, these were things completely unknown to Europe at the time. Gunpowder was used in China nearly a thousand years before Europe; the same for printing. From that, China built there own early version of the musket, centuries before Europeans, as well as cannons. The Chinese also created other military innovations such as Chinese lanterns for signalling and spying. There are then quasi-industrial inventions such as pistons, cast iron, propeller, sluice gates for canals, all a thousand years before their common use in Europe.
I could go on, but I don't want to labour the point, which is that by the time Europe had its Renaissance, China had had at least a five-hundred-year head start on technological innovation, and even China contemporaneous with the Roman Empire was probably still comfortably ahead technologically. The fall of Rome and the Dark Ages put Europe in a funk, and it was only by the Renaissance that they had somewhat caught up with the Chinese, though still a bit behind.
There is a phrase in Capitalism called "Creative Destruction" that goes some way to explaining why the Renaissance happened in Europe at all. The idea is that you have to cause a little anarchy, shaking up the system, in order to promote new ideas. By the time that the Renaissance started in Europe (in the 13th century), China had had more than a thousand years of "creative destruction": China had been at various times over the previous thousand years divided into competing states, or gone from one dynasty quickly being uprooted by the next. There is some credence in the thinking that, like with Europe's creative mess that provoked the Renaissance, this all kept the creative juices flowing in China, as competing powers were always trying to out-do the other in technological pursuits in order to gain an upper hand.
The other thing that was in Europe's favour in causing the Renaissance, was its geography. With the irregular landscape, mountain ranges and so on, it was nigh impossible for "stability" to be created in Europe. There would always be small states, like in Italy, where this continual to-and-fro would provoke ideas to gain the upper hand on political rivals.
China's geography was different, being essentially a large, relatively uniform landscape (about the same size of Europe, with a similar-sized population), dissected by two large rivers. This meant it was in theory easier for one dynasty to control for a longer period of time, given the right circumstances. I'll return to this point shortly.
The coming of the Renaissance in Europe in the 13th century coincided with the arrival of the Mongols onto the world scene. This would prove pivotal for world and Chinese history. The Mongols overran China, ruling from 1271 till 1368, and at the same time, over-running much of the rest of Asia and the Middle East, as far as Eastern Europe.
This would be pivotal for two reasons. First, the sheer scale of the Mongol Empire meant that, for the first time, Chinese trade and ideas could be much more easily transported to the West. The second reason relates to what happened when the Mongol rule of China was defeated in 1368, and a misconception that the West holds about the Mongols.
Mongol rule in China did not bring about a collapse of Chinese innovation; by contrast, it flourished, with further technological and scientific discoveries being made and put into good use. But when the new Chinese Emperor saw the array of technological contraptions in the former Mongol Emperor's palace, he dismissed it all as indicative of the indulgence of their foreign masters, and decreed them all destroyed, discouraging further research into such unnecessary pursuits. Although extensive trade with the Middle East and Africa continued unabated for a while, Chinese research and development never really held its previous high value, and in a matter of a few hundred years, the Chinese were relying on Western explorers' expertise for improving on their now-anachronistic technology.
And yet, paradoxically, the decline in Chinese innovation, happening at around the same time that Europeans' innovations were proliferating, did not adversely affect the lot of the average Chinese peasant compared to his European contemporary. In the four centuries after the restoration of Chinese sovereignty from the Mongols, the average life expectancy in China was roughly between five to ten years high than the Europeans'. The reason was this: China was never, except during occasional periods of political instability, poor in a real sense. The Chinese court was rich from European trade; China's previous extensive exploration and trade links as far as East Africa declined as the Chinese Empire's priorities changed. China, in other words, became complacent and generally content with its lot. It was rich; the West indulged it for China's richness of resources; it was not in imminent danger of invasion. The conditions suitable for "Creative Destruction" that had spurred its previous thousand years of innovation had dried up. As a result, during the 16th century it suffered from a weak, corrupt and long-lived rulers. The dynasty was eventually overthrown in the middle of the 17th century, but the same state of complacency was difficult to get rid of.
By the time of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, China, while economically stable and self-sufficient, its technology was centuries out-of-date compared to Europe due to lack of innovative curiosity. With the onset of Imperialism, the 19th century brought Europeans to China's territorial doorstep. From that point onwards, the decline and political collapse was just a matter of time. The first half of 20th century was arguably the most chaotic period in Chinese history for a thousand years, with civil war overlapping with Japanese invasion. Communism brought stability in 1949, but it was another thirty years before its leader, Deng Xiaoping, had the courage to make the reforms necessary to activate China's long-dormant, massive potential.
So that brings us up-to-date, and provides the necessary context to better understand China's position and where she sees herself in the world. In a nutshell, China seems to see herself primarily as a nation of producers and merchants. It is well-known that China is making significant inroads into Africa and South America, but mainly Africa; particularly Sub-Saharan Africa. Looking at the historical context, this seems to be simply putting its global reach of a thousand years ago into reset mode. It plans to create a so-called "String Of Pearls": a number of naval and commercial outposts that dot the Indian Ocean, from Burma and Bangladesh, west to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and down the East African coast.
What will a world with a pre-eminent China look like? From what I can tell, China priorities are, in the following order, about: ensuring a stable supply of resources (from Africa etc.) to maintain the continued improvements in its population's quality of life; ensuring a stable trade with the West for the same purpose; and to maintain a suitably-sized military to protect those interests. Those priorities are nothing controversial or outlandish.
To be sure, there are other factors that the West has to pencil in: China is sensitive about having its values misunderstood and has no moral objections to using clandestine methods to make its points. Issues like human rights can provoke responses like the disabling of communications systems through hacking and sophisticated viruses. But this is no more than to expect from any wily merchant-civilisation carefully protecting its position. China does not want war: it is bad for business.
As we have seen from Chinese history, as a people and civilisation they are nothing if not endlessly-inventive and resourceful. The description I used as a "nation of merchants" puts me in mind of the Venetian Republic: a commercial power, industrious and innovative, that grew to be a world leader for a time.
The USA shares a similar outlook and mentality, albeit with a more assertive military and an over-confidence in its philosophical superiority over its rivals. These are long-term disadvantages to the American position in the world. China has a few important advantages over the USA in the long-term: China has a huge population; it has better productivity; its military budget is modest compared to its size; it is diplomatically-astute; in the West, it has a stable and reliable demand base, and its native population is expanding its purchasing power.
The future is China's, but don't panic; they've got everything under control.