VIENNA – For a European these days, thinking about the future is disturbing. America is militarily overstretched, politically polarized, and financially indebted. The European Union seems on the brink of collapse, and many non-Europeans view the old continent as a retired power that can still impress the world with its good manners, but not with nerve or ambition.
Global opinion surveys over the last three years consistently indicate that many are turning their backs on the West and – with hope, fear, or both – see China as moving to center stage. As the old joke goes, optimists are learning to speak Chinese; pessimists are learning to use a Kalashnikov.
While a small army of experts argues that China’s rise to power should not be assumed, and that its economic, political, and demographic foundations are fragile, the conventional wisdom is that China’s power is growing. Many wonder what a global Pax Sinica might look like: How would China’s global influence manifest itself? How would Chinese hegemony differ from the American variety?
Generally, questions of ideology, economics, history, and military power dominate today’s China debate. But, when comparing today’s American world with a possible Chinese world of tomorrow, the most striking contrast consists in how Americans and Chinese experience the world beyond their borders.