An LNG terminal in Yangkou Port in Nantong, Jiangsu province. President Xi Jinping claims to foresee an economy based on renewable energy. Photo: AFP

What will human civilization look like in an “Asian Century”? Chinese President Xi Jinping recently answered that question. He outlined the Chinese vision of Asian civilization in the second half of this century and beyond. He unveiled his plan at the 75th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 23.

Xi’s speech recalled the Point Four Program US president Harry S Truman announced in his inaugural address on January 20, 1949. The global dominance the US has sustained politically, economically, and intellectually was presaged in Truman’s address. But in my opinion, Xi’s UNGA speech went further than Truman’s.

The Chinese president’s plan for civilization in the “Asian Century” is in stark contrast to Samuel P Huntington’s ideas depicted in his famous essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” Xi’s blueprint for civilization is material cultural evolution, and it is conciliatory, not confrontational. It resembles the disposition of civilization proposed by American anthropologist Leslie A White.

White proposed two fundamental laws of civilizational/cultural evolution in his 1943 article “Energy and the Evolution of Culture.” He wrote: “The first law of cultural development: Other things being equal, the degree of cultural development varies directly as the amount of energy per capita per year harnessed and put to work.

“The second law of cultural development: Other things being equal, the degree of cultural development varies directly as the efficiency of the technological means with which the harnessed energy is put to work.”

He went on: “Culture develops when the amount of energy harnessed by man per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the technological means of putting this energy to work is increased; or, as both factors are simultaneously increased.”

If one carefully considers the third point of Xi’s speech, White’s idea of civilization is echoed in his Asian Century civilization plan. Xi said that “humankind should launch a green revolution and move faster to create a green way of development and life, preserve the environment, and make Mother Earth a better place for all.… We aim to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.

“We call on all countries to pursue innovative, coordinated, green, and open development for all, seize the historic opportunities presented by the new round of scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation, achieve a green recovery of the world economy in the post-Covid era, and thus create a powerful force driving sustainable development.”

The Chinese leader seems mindful that energy has been the main force driving human civilization, from the time Homo sapiens first appeared on the planet to humans’ invention of the internal combustion engine.

The Chinese are aware that British colonialism expanded after the invention of the steam engine as an enhanced energy harness per capita and as technology developed to put it to work.

Today’s Western civilization is based on the energy extracted from fossil fuels. The US in particular has sustained its global domination by developing technology to tap this energy source more efficiently than the steam engine could – the internal combustion engine – and thereby further enhanced energy consumption per capita.

Xi said in 2019 in the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations that no civilization is destined to clash with any other. Now, he said, “China has no intention to fight either a cold war or a hot one with any country.” Thus in Xi’s schema, human society’s advancement can be achieved by a carbon-neutral economy.

Such a premise looks ambitious and challenging, but it is doable if the Chinese leadership look at their past experiences, and retain their commitment and political will.

For instance, according to World Bank data, the size of the Chinese economy in 1980 was US$191.149 billion, and after 39 years, it reached $14.343 trillion in 2019. Meanwhile, the Chinese patterns of energy consumption changed. In 1990 the pattern was coal 76.2%, crude oil 16.6%, natural gas 2.1%, and renewables 5.1%. By 2018, the patterns had changed to coal 59%, crude oil 18.9%, natural gas 7.8%, and renewables 14.3%. Some economists predict that by 2025, China’s consumption of renewable energy will reach 20%.

Thus the Chinese plan is a step ahead of the concept of White’s cultural evolution. The Chinese focus is on increasing energy harness per capita annually and planning for future energy-consumption quality.

Why did Xi announce the goal of a carbon-neutral economy by 2060? The answer is that Chinese strategists want to kill two birds with one stone. They want to maintain the country’s economic growth path on the domestic front, but also want to overcome the US global domination based on fossil fuels.

There are several reasons behind China’s surprise vow to go for a carbon-neutral economy.

First, Chinese strategists have realized that global economic growth has not been sustainable because it is affected by volatile prices of fossil fuels. Economists agree that irrespective of a particular country’s pace of development, oil-price volatilities have an inverse effect on economic growth. A steep rise in the oil price is the primary cause of financial crises and economic contraction in developed, developing, and least developed economies.

The oil price directly affects the costs of production of goods and services. For example, a direct axiomatic causal link is found between the price of petroleum products and the cost of transportation of goods and people.

Additionally, fossil fuel is itself an unsustainable energy source. Sooner or later, China has to replace fossil fuel with clean energy.

Politicians’ and policymakers’ biggest dilemma in the contemporary world is their paradoxical expectation of sustainable economic growth by depending on unsustainable energy sources whose prices are unstable. Chinese strategists have concluded that sustainable economic development can be realized by relying solely on sustainable energy at a stable price.

Second, China’s decision to move to a carbon-neutral economy is both a means and an end in itself. In the first sense, going green is a means to obtain higher and sustained economic growth. In the second sense, by going green, China wants to ensure more investment, job creation, the harnessing of talent, entrepreneurship development, more innovation, and consequently higher and sustained economic growth in the future.

It is a strategy for escaping from the middle-income trap. Many projections suggest that by 2050, China will control one-fifth of the world economy, with a gross domestic product of $80 trillion. A carbon-neutral economy is a new investment opportunity to propel higher growth to avoid falling into the middle-income trap.

Third, going carbon-neutral is a pivot for Chinese foreign policy and strategy for the future. China wants to end American domination without fighting a single battle with the US. Instead, it will do this by tapping new energy sources through technological innovations and research and development in energy-harnessing technology.

In 1973, US secretary of state Henry Kissinger reached an agreement with Saudi Arabia to underwrite that country’s security in exchange for pricing oil in US dollars. Since then, oil has been the critical factor for America’s geopolitical sphere of influence globally.  Thus its primary goal is to maintain the petrodollar agreement.

US hegemony has been sustained not because of the country’s military and strategic arms capabilities but by way of the petrodollar accord. The US economy has benefited from petrodollar recycling. It also uses petrodollars as a powerful tool to enforce its foreign policy. China wants to make US domination based on fossil fuels futile with clean energy.

Besides, China wants to overcome the burden of the “Malacca Dilemma” soon. About 70% of China’s crude-oil imports pass through the Malacca Strait. So that sea lane’s security has become the main worry for Chinese strategists since the country’s economic takeoff. The disruption to the free flow of oil into China through the Malacca Strait could ruin the country’s prosperity. Thus the Chinese concluded that they could overcome this risk if they switched to clean energy.

Moreover, China’s economic cooperation and partnership will be based on a green alliance. This will enhance Beijing’s policy of technical assistance and economic aid to underdeveloped and developing countries. It will also help to grow China’s foreign trade based on technology and high-tech goods.

Fourth, going for a carbon-neutral economy is a pivot for China’s technological innovation, industrial development and job creation. The smart grid, an energy-efficient semiconductor industry, grid-level large-scale electrical energy storage (GLEES) batteries, electric vehicles and other technological innovations will propel the carbon-neutral economy in the future.

Xi’s initiative not only could cut emissions, but could result in a spillover effect in the rest of the world. That would result in growth in China’s export of high-tech goods, technology, and services.

Where it could lead

If all this comes about, the Asian Century will be dominated by carbon-neutral energy and will be known as a “Green Century.”

Some 80 years ago in the article cited above, White wrote: “A return to a cultural level comparable to that of China during the Ming dynasty is neither inconceivable nor impossible. It all depends upon how man harnesses the forces of Nature and the extent to which this is done.”

Xi wants not only China’s return to the Ming dynasty-level of material cultural development but will take it forward, into the “green civilization.”

Before concluding, I want to quote White again: “Eventually, no matter how much we conserve, this sponging off past ages for fossil energy must cease…. What then? The answer is, of course, that culture will decline unless man is able to maintain the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year by tapping new sources.”

The US considers Russia, Iran and China as its primary adversaries. However, the main threat to the US is from within. The primary foe of US global prominence in the future will be its fossil-fuel-based energy policy.

Western civilization will definitely decline unless it can maintain the existing energy harness per capita per annum, not from fossil fuel but from clean energy. The US should join hands with China if it wants to hold on to its vanguard leadership position in the future multipolar world.

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Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.