Sun, Dec 30, 2012 - Page 9 News List

China is the elephant in the situation room

The significance of China’s development in shaping the future of the world is fundamental

By Ian Bremmer  /  Reuters

Illustration: Tania Chou

Earlier this month the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) released its Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds report — a document that comes out once per presidential administration — mapping out likely geopolitical trends over the next two decades or so.

As usual, it is a must-read, offering comprehensive analysis of the disparate factors that will drive global politics through 2030.

Further, the NIC took bold steps to correct some previous weaknesses in past reports. In the past, the report nailed the “what” more often than the “when.” That is particularly the case with its treatment of the US, for which “past works assumed US centrality.”

This time around the NIC sets an increasingly “multipolar world” — which I call the G-Zero — as the backdrop of its report, acknowledging that the lack of global leadership has accelerated in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008 to 2009.

The US’ status as a “hegemonic power” is eroding, and no country is likely to take its place.

This multipolar world is the foundation for the rest of the NIC’s predictions. The report is organized around subsections that range in probability: There are the megatrends that are sure to have an effect, the game-changers that could go a number of ways, and the four potential worlds of 2030.

In my opinion, when it comes to probabilities for the future global order, the single biggest variable — both in terms of its importance and its potential variance — is China’s rise or lack thereof. If there are twin “gigatrends” that supersede all else, they are China’s trajectory and the multipolar world in which it is playing out.

China is mentioned more than 300 times in the report, and the NIC’s assertion that “the US-China relationship is perhaps the most important bilateral tie shaping the future” is dead on (though I’d cut the word “perhaps”).

However, despite China’s implicit impact on the report, the NIC does not establish it as the twin pillar alongside the multipolar world it vividly describes. Nor do we get a full sense of how a host of negative China surprises could fundamentally alter the world of 2030 as we imagine it.

A look at each subsection of the NIC report demonstrates just how critical China’s development is — or should be — in its calculus.


1. Individual empowerment: Reduced poverty, growing middle classes and new communications and technologies will empower individuals around the world.

Individual empowerment is, on balance, a positive global trend. However, in China, it is moving along two tracks. There is the increasingly affluent, coastal, urban China, where citizens have access to the Internet and increasingly demand the protections that come with the rule of law, respect for intellectual property rights and tougher environmental standards from their government. In an authoritarian, state capitalist nation, where the central government’s priority is to maintain its grip on power, empowered citizens are a wild card. An increasingly affluent population that is demanding more transparency and accountability poses a challenge to regime stability.

On the other hand, there is the half of China that is rural, mainly inland, impoverished and uninformed. Should this group fall further behind, China might face unrest and volatility from the other side of the spectrum. China’s two-speed individual empowerment is a more destabilizing dynamic than it may appear.

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