Will China Win the Future?

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been using remarkable rhetoric to describe his country's increasingly assertive role in world affairs. In speeches at last month's national congress of the Communist Party of China and elsewhere, he has hailed a "new era" of Chinese world leadership.

He says China is transforming itself into a "mighty force" after decades of struggle and that it stands "tall and firm" and ready to lead. He says China is moving "closer to center stage" and nearer to realizing the "China dream," suggesting it will join, if not supplant, the United States as a superpower, and lead the world in addressing political, economic and military issues.

Xi talks about China taking "a driving seat" in international cooperation to address climate change and other challenges.

China has become a model of a centrally managed economy, and its international prominence is growing. As general secretary of the ruling party since 2012, Xi presents China as a confident, responsible power ready to take on the mantle of global authority.

In Xi's vision, one Western observer said, Xi sits on top of the Communist party; the party sits on top of China; and China sits on top of the world.

As China has moved to center stage, the United States appears to be withdrawing. Most observers believe its influence and leadership have dwindled. The rest of the world is moving on from the American era, figuring out how to operate without the U.S. in the lead.

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump declared that China was "killing us" on trade. But on a visit to Beijing this month, Trump lavished praise on Xi, said the two leaders enjoyed "great chemistry" and refused to blame China for its aggressive economic tactics.

It is important to note that China is still no match for the United States economically or militarily. But American economic might has slipped, and the U.S. no longer stands up for universal values such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Others are less eager to follow our democratic model.

Our politics are turning inward. We have become more protectionist in trade, putting our own interests first and worrying less about others. We are less of a force for good in the world, less of an example of how a great democratic power can work with and lead the world.

America's unipolar moment has largely passed. To a disturbing extent, we are not even aware of China's challenge.

If you look at problems we face -- trade and the global economy, cybersecurity, protection of intellectual property, climate change, tensions with North Korea and many more -- we urgently need a cooperative relationship. However, we fail to engage on many consequential issues. We don't seem to have a coherent strategy. The Trump administration has no point person responsible for China.

Given these trends, which are widely observed and agreed upon, the question is: Can China win the future?

I don't think it's a sure thing that China will win. It confronts grave problems, including pervasive corruption, potential social unrest and slowing economic growth. It is an aging society with severe demographic problems. Its debt is reaching dangerous levels. It struggles with appalling industrial pollution. It has increasing problems of inequality.

Centralized governments do not have a very impressive track record, and China's government is nothing if not centralized. It controls the flow of information, the practice of politics and competition in the economy. It lacks a clear rule-of-law environment.

Through Xi's Belt and Road initiative, China is funding infrastructure around the globe, and it may be overextending itself, pouring money into some of the world's least stable countries.

Now and then China's assertive rhetoric is tempered by self-restraint -- as when Xi calls for building a "moderately" prosperous society -- raising the question of whether China really wants to be a world leader. Clearly it wants to be a leader in Asia, but that's different from leading the world.

But the question of how China will use its power is a central question of our time in foreign policy. To what extent will it challenge American power and seek to compete directly and globally with the United States?

There is a strong anti-American strain in the Chinese leaders' view of the world. They will not accept having the United States set global norms as we have done in the past. China is certainly the only nation that can challenge American dominance.

It is much too early to proclaim that China will eventually win such a competition. But Americans are far too complacent about the challenge that it presents. The United States needs to up its game across the board if it wants to maintain anything like the dominance it has had in world affairs for decades.

Will China win the future? The answer lies as much with America as with the Chinese.

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