Late in February I was fortunate to attend the Camden Conference together with more than sixty students from the University of Maine system. This year’s theme, “Is this China’s Century?” presented many favorable views that supported the thesis that China was going to surpass the United States economically and therefore become the next superpower of the world. In 2012 U.S. ambassador Chas Freeman had coined the phrase that this century was “Nobody’s Century;” in less than seven years we went from a century that was up for grabs to a century that belonged to China. Quite rushed conclusions considering that we have only been in a position of global power since 1945. I consider seventy four years a short period of time to judge the success or failure of our global leadership, and I also consider China’s growth of the last forty years too short of a period to make such a bold judgement.
As I tell my students, we invented the rules of the game for this second era of globalization and in order to lose at our game we either need to be defeated at it or someone must convince the rest of the players to play a totally different game. Up to the present time, it is evident that we continue to dominate the game and that everybody is happy playing our game, including China.
We advanced the global idea of free trade, pushed for the expansion of a global consumer culture, and constructed a less regulated world based on economic blocs that have slowly picked away at the sovereignty of the nation state. In fact we were the first modern free trade zone, fifty markets joined together by one wholistic market, under one political model, and a two-party system that facilitated the acceleration of capitalism throughout the twentieth century. We, meaning our government-business partnerships, went as far as reengineering the American left, ultimately transforming it into the voice of reason that sold to our working class the concept of free trade and globalization; remember the Clinton administration?
As the concept of the European Union (EU) evolved in the 1970s and 1980s, here in North America, Canadian and U.S. transnational business interests manufactured a new historical spatial dimension; a new economic, social, cultural, and political space that we now call NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and will soon call the United States, Mexico, Canada Agreement. A new way of organizing and executing trade that bypasses the jurisdiction of the nation state and that allows corporations to conduct business in a more flexible and unregulated manner.
Today, North America, South America, Central America, Asia, South East Asia, Europe, Africa, and Eurasia have their own economic blocs, as they prepare to compete over the globalized market of the twenty first century. Add to this a frenzy of bilateral Free Trade Agreements that have been signed between nations across the world. The United States has twenty four of these agreements and China has fourteen; others like Canada have not only been able to secure numerous bilateral Free Trade Agreements but also intertwine their economy into numerous trade blocs, including NAFTA the EU and the Trans Pacific Partnership.
If global markets are more efficiently interconnected through trade bloc than individual bilateral agreements, then it is feasible to say that this is not China’s century. Geopolitical power will center on economic blocs and not on the nation state. This is the game that our corporations have carved out for us. It explains why Canada is the first or second trading partner in more than forty of our states and why our supply chains are heavily dependent on the Mexican market. It also explains why these two countries are heavily dependent on our ability to consume their exports. No wonder our energy grid and our pipeline infrastructure is connected to Canada’s and why more and more of our strategic infrastructure is designed around the trilateral partnership.
While our bloc operates as a well-oiled machine, even under the current political turmoil, the other trading blocs are still trying to find a gear and in other instances, as in the case of the EU, barely running on two cylinders (France and Germany). How can this be China’s century if they are swimming against the current. Their vision does not see trading blocs as a strategy, instead they want to conquer the global market on their own.
The Chinese Communist Party has set a goal of reviving their old “silk road” and expanding it across the global market system, ultimately connecting their nation to the world and building interdependent relations with one third of the global economy through their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This copy and paste strategy that replicates our own market expansionist strategy of the twentieth century may result more costly than effective, eventually entangling China in a similar vicious cycle of regional conflicts and wasted national resources as it happened to us.
While we move away from this costly growth strategy and toward the globalization of the market via trade blocs, the Chinese Communist Party seem destined to make our same mistakes. Perhaps it is China’s century of waste and inefficiency. Remember that we had our own BRI called the Marshall Plan, and where is Europe’s gratitude? Do not forget the Panama Canal and the Pan American Highway, part of our own BRI that ultimately resulted in the emergence of an anti-American sentiment across the region.
Yes, the Communist Party can, hypothetically, spend without limitation and they have no worries about political reprisal or social revolt. Nevertheless, there are no guaranties against a surge of anti-Chinese sentiment across the BRI corridors; not to mention future refugee crises as people in the region try to enter their borderland in search of a better quality of life or blowback that may result in their own Pearl Harbor or Nine-Eleven.
Internal political instability may also become an internal domestic issue that might not be contained by their repressive police state. Of course that would require a cultural transformation and a disconnection between the masses and the Communist Party, but it seems feasible as incomes rise, social inequality expands, and capitalism/consumerism begins to slowly replace the power of the state. It is hard to weigh the sustainability of a political and economic model that tries to balance totalitarianism with capitalism, but I predict that it is not sustainable in the short-run.
How can it be China’s century if the world is still wearing jeans, drinking artisan beer, eating potato chips, and listening to rap, hip hop, rock, blues, jazz, and salsa (yes, salsa surfaced in the streets of New York in the 1960s)? How can this be possible if the international language of business is English? How can it be true if the West continues to invent new technology and transform the world while the Chinese continue to copy and replicate what is invented in the West? I will believe it when the West ceases to believe in its own cultural expressions and instead adopts the Chinese vision of the world.
The true power is found in culture, particularly Western culture that, although not perfect, allows humans to be creative and individualistic. These are the pillars of capitalism, the essence of entrepreneurship and problem solving. Will the nations of the world be capable of adapting to a new world order centered on Chinese totalitarianism? Will the Chinese Communist Party be able to persuade the world to move away from democracy, even with its imperfections, and toward their political model?
This is not China’s century but the century of new political and economic order. Perhaps the century of economic blocs, raising to power those that build the most economically sustainable bloc (less poverty, more equality, more social and environmental justice). It may also be the century of uncertainty; like Freeman said, “Nobody’s Century.” It could even be the century of global billionaires and trillionaires or the century of gigantic transnational corporations that will own the resources, minds and souls of the world, but not China’s century.
 Chas Freeman. “Nobody’s Century,” WBUR 90.9. October 22, 2012. Accessed March 10, 2019. https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2012/10/22/nobodys-century
 Thomas Hirst. “A Brief History of China’s Economic Growth.” World Economic Forum, July 30, 2015. Accessed March 10, 2019. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/07/brief-history-of-china-economic-growth/
 The first era of globalization emerged during the last half of the nineteenth century and ended with the beginning of World War One. For more on the first era of globalization see, for example, “Globalization – First Era of Modern Globalization: to 1914.” American Foreign Relations. Accessed March 10, 2019. https://www.americanforeignrelations.com/E-N/Globalization-First-era-of-modern-globalization-to-1914.html
 “Belt and Road Initiative,” The World Bank, March 29, 2018. Accessed April 1, 2019. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/regional-integration/brief/belt-and-road-initiative
 Capitalism might not even be sustainable under democratic values in the long-run.