China has spent much of its history behind walls of its own design. Historically, it was always an advanced nation: equal, and often superior, to the European nations in many respects.
Yet by the mid-nineteenth century it had fallen far behind the West economically and technologically. One incident, a mere footnote in the history of the British Empire, still resonates deeply with the Chinese.
In 1841 China learned the hard way that technological superiority leads to political, military and economic mastery. The British taught them that lesson with what was then a state-of-the-art battleship, the Nemesis.
Launched in 1839 by the East India Company, the British used this ship to great effect in the First Anglo-Chinese War. The Chinese referred to her as the "devil ship."
The Nemesis was a steamship, able to move independently of the wind. She was armed with two pivot-mounted 32 pounder cannon and four 6 pounder guns, as well as a rocket launcher. Astonishing stuff back in 1841.
Powered by steam -- and also sail -- she was particularly effective in China because her shallow draught of only 5 feet enabled her to travel up rivers. The Nemesis was able to move with speed against the winds and tides and and to transport heavy guns.
In addition, the British troops were armed with modern muskets and cannons which fired more rapidly and accurately than the Qing guns and artillery. After the British took Canton, they sailed up the Yangtze and took the dynasty's tax barges, denying the imperial court in Beijing much of its revenue.
In the Second Battle of Chuenpee in 1841, the Nemesis and a fleet of other British ships captured a strategically vital Chinese fort and the Nemesis then swiftly attacked a fleet of 15 junks under Admiral Kuan T'ien-p'ei in Anson's Bay. The ship fired a rocket that struck a junk just near the shocked Chinese admiral.
A British officer gave this account of the incident:
"The very first rocket fired from the Nemesis was seen to enter the large junk... and almost the instant afterwards it blew up with a terrific explosion, launching into eternity every soul on board, and pouring forth its blaze like the mighty rush of fire from a volcano.
"The instantaneous destruction of the huge body seemed appalling to both sides engaged. The smoke, and flame, and thunder of the explosion, with the broken fragments falling round, and even portions of dissevered bodies scattering as they fell, were enough to strike with awe, if not fear, the stoutest heart that looked upon it."
The battle had been joined at 8 am, and by 11.30 the Chinese junks had surrendered. No British were killed, but between 500-600 Chinese died. The Island of Hong Kong became a British possession, and was to remain so until the 1990s.
The resonance of this humiliating historical lesson is perhaps why the Chinese today spend a perplexing amount of time and energy investing in the very highest technology military equipment available, like the Chengdu J-20 stealth aircraft. Its test flight was "leaked" just before the Chinese president's US visit.
Despite the public shows of friendship, some see sinister echoes in the behind-the-scenes sabre rattling between the US and China:
Last year, Ambrose Evans Pritchard wrote:
"China has succumbed to hubris. It has mistaken the soft diplomacy of Barack Obama for weakness, mistaken the US credit crisis for decline, and mistaken its own mercantilist bubble for ascendancy. There are echoes of Anglo-German spats before the First World War, when Wilhelmine Berlin so badly misjudged the strategic balance of power and over-played its hand."
Yet for all the talk of the Chinese economic miracle, its economic star may be on the wane. According to The Daily Telegraph:
"On Tuesday Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street trail blazer, issued a short-term alert on China, as well as the other BRIC countries.
"Tim Moe, the bank's chief Asia-Pacific strategist, told a conference in London: "To be frank, we may have held on too long to our overweight position in China last year. We have decided that discretion is the better part of valour and have tactically reduced our weight. Asia is not in the sweet part of the cycle. The longer-term picture of Asia outperforming the US is taking a breather."
As well as its economy looking increasingly shaky, China's military is in no respect a match for America's. China's one child policy also implies a demographic picture which means that China will lose its youthful edge by mid-century as its population rapidly ages.
Henry Kissinger, on the BBC's Newsnight last night, dismissed the idea of the US being eclipsed by China as the world's superpower, saying that there is a balance of payments issue, but the US is still very much a "vital nation."
This article originally appeared on NewsWhip.ie