The historic apogee of Chinese culture, technological achievement and military power was during the Ming Dynasty from the 14th to the 17th century. During that period China established its cultural and political domination over all of East and Southeast Asia.
Gunpowder and paper money were but two of the innovations of the Ming and an encyclopedia was published encompassing everything then known. It was the most complete compendium of knowledge ever until the creation of Wikipedia.
It sent its navy, the most powerful in the world at the time, as far afield as Arabia and Africa, establishing a sphere of influence encompassing all of the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and as far as the entrance to the Red Sea.
European naval powers such as England and Portugal hastened to make treaties with China and established trading posts in Hong Kong and Macau.
Then followed three and a half centuries of decline in all fields in which China previously excelled, culminating in a succession of humiliating military defeats from the 1840s to the 1940s. China lost all of its tributary states as well as Taiwan, Manchuria and vast areas of China proper. Internal convulsions and civil war contributed to the devastation of the country, which occurred whether it was under imperial, republican or communist rule. At the beginning of the 1970s, China was a political and economic wreck.
Then came the death of the Mao Zedong and the ascendancy of Deng Xiaoping, who, by freeing up the Chinese economy within a context of authoritarian political stability, propelled the Asian giant into a new golden age of expansion in every field: diplomatic, cultural, scientific, technological, economic, financial and, last but by no means least, military.
In the year 2000 the US bestrode the world as an unchallengeable colossus. Less than two decades later this unipolar configuration has become tripolar, encompassing the US, Russia and China. Compared with those three, all other powers, including Europe, are secondary to insignificant.
That being the case, how do the US, Russia and China compare, now and in the future?
All the great world empires in history suffered from internal rot before being overcome by external enemies. Sometimes that process was rapid and sometimes lengthy.
In the case of the US today the forces of disintegration, including a staggering load of debt, an obscene degree of concentration of wealth, and the decline of civil discourse, classical education and the traditional family have triggered the rise of populist movements that are afflicting the political/economic giant that recently was not only the richest and most powerful country in the world but the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world.
Diagnosis: Entropic influences are growing but they are not without significant opposition. Prognosis: Decline will continue but the process will be slow.
A classic case of how an individual, as we have seen with Deng in China, can influence the trajectory of an entire society. Against all oddsm Vladimir Putin has picked up a country in the final stages of disintegration and turned it again into a great power.
Diplomacy, science, technology, propaganda and military development and display, along with actual acts of war (in Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine), have turned Russia again into a great power.
A superb grasp of the uses and nuances of the contemporary instruments of influence such as social media as well as cyber offense and defense, as well as an unparalleled strategic sense about when and where to advance, have made Putin as a leader (leaving aside the actual objectives he pursues) unparalleled in the contemporary world scene.
But he is achieving all this in a country in terminal decline in economic and social terms. Russia is like a great boxer who has been knocked to the mat for a count of nine but who rises again and fights with renewed vigor and success, only to find that his reserves of strength are not being replenished. Unlike the US, final collapse in the case of Russia is likely to be sudden and in the not too distant future.
Unlike the US and Russia, China is ascendant, successfully spreading its power and influence throughout the world through the use of all the instruments of statecraft: intelligent diplomacy; a strong and growing economy; superb scientific and technological skills; and military development and deployment.
Trade and investment everywhere; spread of the Chinese language and culture through Confucius Institutes; Pharaonic infrastructure projects such as Belt and Road; naval and/or air bases in the East and South China Seas, on the coast of Pakistan, at the mouth of the Red Sea in Djibouti and now a move into the Mediterranean through making a deal with Israel to manage the Port of Haifa.
Seen from the perspective of the pathetic giant of the 1970s, all this is astonishing. Meanwhile the human urge for liberty, crushed in Tiananmen Square, will continue to be held in check as the Chinese revel in economic prosperity and an increasing international influence and prestige not seen for centuries.
If a successful transition to some form of democracy can be managed at some point in the future, as in South Korea and Taiwan, there is every reason for China to continue its upward trajectory. It has no rivals in Asia except India, and none in the rest of the world except Russia and the US. But accommodation has been reached with Russia whereby they don’t interfere in each other’s spheres of influence. China can afford to wait Russia out while continuing to infiltrate Siberia peacefully.
As to the US, the situation is more complicated because the interests of the parties are in direct political, economic and military conflict. But the US at this point is its own worst enemy, and if China continues to exercise its traditional patience, there is reason to believe that it will also outlast the US as a world power. After that? The new unipolar world will last until internal rot begins to afflict China and new powers arise in the world to challenge it.
Better start learning Chinese.