The West is on top of the world. Only about one-seventh of the planet’s population lives in Europe or North America, but they generate two-thirds of its wealth, own two-thirds of its weapons, and spend more than two-thirds of its R&D dollars. On average, American workers are seven times as productive as China’s.
Yet when Richard Nixon made his famous visit to Beijing back in 1972, American workers were 20 times as productive as Chinese. China’s share of global production was then 5 percent; now it is 14 percent. China is now the world’s second-biggest economy (and Japan is the third) and the world’s biggest carbon emitter. The world’s fastest supercomputer is Chinese.
We are living through the biggest shift in wealth, power and prestige since the industrial revolution catapulted Western Europe to global dominance 200 years ago. And the force driving the rise of the East is exactly the same as the force that drove the earlier rise of the West: the interaction of geography with economics and technology.
Back in the 15th century, new methods of sailing (pioneered in China) made it possible for ships to cross the oceans. All of a sudden, the geographical detail that Western Europe was only 3,000 miles from America’s east coast while China was 8,000 miles from its west coast became the most important fact in the world. It meant that Europeans, rather than Chinese, colonized the New World, creating new kinds of market economies around the shores of the Atlantic.
These markets generated equally new incentives that drove Europeans, rather than Chinese, to harness the power of fossil fuels in an industrial revolution. This revolution’s steamships and railroads further shrank the world in the 19th century, unleashing the vast industrial potential of North America’s hinterland. By 1900, the United States had displaced Western Europe as the world’s center of gravity.
But history did not stop at that point. Technology kept shrinking the world throughout the 20th century. By 1950, the Pacific was no more of a barrier to trade than the Atlantic had been a century earlier.
Now it was the turn of East Asia’s vast industrial potential to be released. First Japan, then South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, and now China were drawn into the global economy. By 2000, China was gaining on the United States; by 2050, it may well displace it.
In the 19th century, there was nothing that the East’s rulers, soldiers or intellectuals could do to stop geography from changing meaning. And now, in the 21st century, there is nothing that the West can do to stop geography from changing meaning again.
That said, there was much that Easterners could have done to manage the rise of the West. Rejecting Britain’s free-trade embassy in 1793 was a disaster for China. Failing to fortify the Pearl and Yangtze deltas against British warships in 1840 was even worse. And Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941 was the worst of all. At any of these points, and at plenty of others, better decisions would have paid huge dividends for the East.
Similarly, there is much that 21st-century Westerners can do to manage the rise of the East. Paying off the West’s huge debts is one obvious instance. Encouraging immigration to balance the West’s aging populations is another.
Freeing ourselves from oil and gas is a third requirement. East-West competition over resources in the “Arc of Instability” that stretches from Africa through the Middle East to central Asia spells trouble, particularly as global warming and nuclear proliferation further destabilize the region.
Using America’s military might to guarantee the international order is equally important. This is an expensive burden, but U.S. arms have kept the peace over Taiwan and Korea for nearly 60 years, and it will be U.S. arms that keep China’s rise peaceful in the 21st century — if anything does.
Last but not least, consistent pressure on China to open its society can only bring benefits. The 18 governments that joined China in boycotting the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony included many of the usual West-bashers, from Iran to Venezuela. But the fact that Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia all chose China’s friendship over America’s is worrying indeed.
In the long run, the inexorable forces of technological change and globalization may render today’s anxieties over the rise of the East irrelevant. A hundred years from now, “East” and “West” may not mean much any more.
But in the short and medium run, as we try to solve increasingly global problems within the framework of nation-states created in the 19th and 20th centuries, the risks are great. In a world full of weapons of mass destruction, failure to manage them is not an option. The next 40 years will be the most important in human history.
Ian Morris, professor of classics and history at Stanford University and author of the just-published Why the West Rules — For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal About the Future.