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One central question will be the battle for influence between the US and China

Interview with Gideon Rachman, Journalist and Author

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European Business: Mr. Rachman, Donald Trump promised to ‘Make America Great Again’. If you look at the current geopolitical developments, is his endeavour a ‘Mission impossible’?

Gideon Rachman: The phrase is deliberately vague. But I think Trump's slogan has a domestic and international meaning. Domestically, I think he is appealing to the idea that the US can return to the era of relentlessly rising living standards, plentiful well-paid jobs for the unskilled and also probably the class/gender/racial norms of the 1950s. I think these goals are unrealistic. America has changed socially and demographically. The economic aspiration is worthwhile – but very hard to achieve in an era of globalisation and computerisation. One possibility would be to adopt more redistributive taxation policies – but Trump has done the opposite.

On the international level, the idea seems to be to restore an era of unchallenged US primacy. But that seems highly unlikely, given the rise of China – as well as India and the improbable resurgence of Russia. If anything, US power is in retreat – particularly in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. The challenge will be to manage the transition to a new order, while minimising conflict. But we should also accept that international affairs is highly unpredictable – see the collapse of the USSR. An outbreak of turmoil in China could change the picture again. And there are certain areas where US primacy is likely to remain unchallenged for some time – for example there is no plausible challenge to the dollar as the world's most important reserve currency.

Gideon Rachman
If anything, US power is in retreat – particularly in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. Gideon Rachman

European Business: In your book several hints can be found that conflicts between the USA and China might be unavoidable. Can both countries really risk a large-scale conflict without severe consequences on a political and economic level?

Gideon Rachman: Well, I certainly discuss that theme. But I'm actually quite sceptical about the idea of a "Thucydides Trap" – the idea that a rising power and an established power are inevitably going to clash and go to war. I don't think that is inevitable, or even likely, in a nuclear age. However, I do think we will see increasing US-China rivalry over trade and particularly technology – and, in fact, that is already happening. As a result the globalised world economic system may begin to break up, with the US and China trying to force other countries to deal with them (and their technology) exclusively. And the risk of a military clash cannot be ruled out, even if it’s unlikely. I don't think the leaders of either China or the US would deliberately choose war. But the risk of a clash between the two navies in the Pacific is certainly there – and that could escalate. And there are numerous regional flashpoints, including North Korea and Taiwan.

European Business: You also mention cultural differences: The Chinese embrace a circular view of history, the USA a linear one. Where would you position the European mentality within this matrix?

Gideon Rachman: I think the Europeans are somewhere in between. The Enlightenment philosophy certainly encouraged a linear idea of progress. And at the height of European global power, many would have embraced the a linear view of history, based around Europe's "civilising mission". The experience of two world wars and the decline in European power has dented that optimistic view. Perhaps the last redoubt is (or was) the European Union, whose truest believers have hoped that the EU pointed the way towards a new form of globalised governance. However, I would call Europe's worldview more "declinist" than cyclical. The unique thing about the Chinese view is that it goes back thousands of years and sees history in epochs that last hundreds of years (dynasties)...So you can have a great few centuries associated with a successful dynasty like the Ming or the Song; and then a period of chaos and decline that can also last centuries, but that can be succeeded by another successful period.

Will America be able to rally an informal coalition of powers to contain a rising China. Or will China's economic and market power, inevitably pull other countries into Beijing's orbit. Gideon Rachman
Gideon Rachman

European Business: Easternisation is a process you analyse on a political level. To what extent does Easternisation already have an influence on Western societies?

Gideon Rachman: I think it’s already very evident. China is now Germany's largest export market- bigger than the US or France. Three of the five largest economies in the world, measured by purchasing power are now in Asia – China at number one, India at three, Japan at four. (Germany is five). Asian and Chinese tourists are becoming a much noticeable feature of life in the West – and tourism is one of our biggest industries. China's economic might has political implications inevitably – for example through the Belt and Road initiative which is expanding Chinese influence into Europe. And conflicts within Asia will have global implications because of the centrality of Asia to the global economy.

European Business: You call the regulation of the Easternisation of mankind the greatest challenge in the 21st century. Which country will be the leading power in charge of this process?

Gideon Rachman: I think the problem – or perhaps, the challenge – is that no single country can control the process. It has to be evolutionary and co-operative if it is to be managed. One central question will be the battle for influence between the US and China. Will America be able to rally an informal coalition of powers to contain a rising China. Or will China's economic and market power, inevitably pull other countries into Beijing's orbit.

Interview: Markus Büssecker | Pictures: Alistair Hall

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