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Por María Eyaralar*

Publicado el 22/02/2024

China. The shiniest star in the Ursa Maior constellation that East Asia is turning out to be. In many ways, China is like a smaller world within our World. It matches the ever-present idea of “All Under Heaven” under which the Emperors founded the Chinese Empire that evolved into the country that we know nowadays. It is so diverse, that it constitutes an idea impossible to synthesize, even from a physical point of view. The country’s geography is already extremely diverse; if we could cut it in half, we would see two pieces so different from one another that it would trick us into thinking we are looking at two completely different countries. The left half is dominated by the Tibetan Plateau, high and plain, mostly deserted and unpopulated, deeply traditional and quite unmodernised. The other half, the right one, constitutes the opposite reality: much greener, lower, full of modern cities and very densely populated. And it is the latter, the developed rich half, the one which is about to change History forever.

Day by day, we are seeing the tables turn and how the world order is shifting. During the COVID-19 crisis, it has become clear who is more efficient in terms of solving the kind of global conflicts which weave the enigmatic pattern that awaits us. Everybody can see how China, with its discipline and efficiency, has been caught by surprise but steadily adapted to the requirements of the sanitary crisis. While the current – or some may say former – world leaders are struggling to keep their economies and governments functioning, China proves to have the perfect cocktail of features to fulfil the requirements needed to take over the global leadership in the future world order. Parallel to this, there is an ongoing – and quite opportune, if I dare say– decoupling process in today’s international relations, which is a coin with two sides: heads, the West will lose power, strength and influence; tails, the new Ursa Maior in IR will be in the Asian Continent, leaving the West behind as the new Ursa Minor. It’s not hard to imagine China performing the role of the US, Japan or Korea performing the role of Russia, and South-East Asia in the role of the European Union. A full-fledged turn of events.


This last region, South-East Asia, is as geographically diverse as the Chinese giant: some countries are insular, others are continental; some are extremely rich, others are very poor. Singapore and Cambodia are completely opposite realities. And this geographical and also demographical and infrastructural imbalance is a common denominator amongst other Asian regions as well; it is a land full of contrasts. Despite these similarities in their structure, China has evolved further, and gained much more power and influence than its neighbours. One of the key factors which have enabled this ascension is its strong unity as an only country, forged since the earliest years of the Chinese Empire. This can be properly understood with the metaphor of the Yellow River, explained by Yuval Noah Harari in his TED Talk on globalization, in which he describes how the several communities distributed along the Yellow River were unable to fight the natural disasters that the river caused because they didn’t have an overall control of the river. With joint cooperation of all the communities, it soon became easy for them to gain that overall control, and subsequently increase their prosperity, and this strengthened all of them in a way that they could have not achieved on their own.


Although essential, unity alone is not enough. India, for example, also went through a unification process, but its influence or future prospects are nowhere near China’s. Thus, to understand the origins of this outstanding dominance we must go way back in History once again, to the beginnings of the Chinese Empire.

As I have previously mentioned, unification strengthened China. But what enabled it to become so influential was not the fact of unifying alone. It was the fact of being the first. China is always first: it was the first one to create a strong union, the first one to establish the Imperial Tributary System, and now it’s been the first one to take over the COVID-19 crisis. This competitive advantage with no possible rivals achieved at key moments in history is what will now allow China to climb to the position of world leader. Thanks to being the first union with such strength and influence in the area two thousand years ago, it was able to establish the Imperial Tributary System, which set the bases for nowadays’ situation, two thousand years later.

The Tributary System is to a large extent responsible for China’s dominant position. The regions around it had to pay tribute as a way to keep diplomatic relations stable, to remain in a context of Pax Sinica, and this set the base for the idea of China as the dominant region which “lets others be in peace”. The others accepted this due to their inability to fight such an already-established power, and this conditioned their future enormously: they would forever be under the shade of China. South-East Asia, a region which is as diverse as China and in a much more strategic position – right in the frontier between the Indian and the Pacific Ocean – never underwent such a unification; thus, it never gained that kind of power, and now, under the shade of China, its future shine very much depends on the Giant achieving its global goals.


Nevertheless, South-East Asia is on the right path regarding union efforts. Initiatives such as ASEAN are setting the base for the region to skyrocket as soon as China achieves its goal and becomes the global superpower. If the

decoupling process goes on, a region like South-East Asia is the perfect candidate for China to fulfil its interests of creating a strong axis and stabilising its position, and having the EU as a precedent and China’s new interests as guarantors, it would at the same time be the region’s opportunity to prosper as a key piece of the puzzle, as China’s neighbour stars forming one same constellation.

For many centuries, the idea of the Chinese domination that sprouted form the Tributary System has been restricted to the regional sphere, but it had not taken on the global scene. It only applied to Asia. That position on the global scale first belonged to Europe and then to the United States – only defied by Russia. However, the role performed by China during the last century has enabled it to arise from the position of regional leader as the most probable candidate for the position of world leader. It is like a teenager who has been bonding with important adults and now, after testing the ground, is ready to emancipate and beat the masters. However, there are still some challenges that the country will have to deal with if it wants to reinforce its mastership. Already outstanding in fields such as technology and education, these future obstacles in the Giant’s way will be mostly demographic and infrastructural. It is fundamental for China to keep in mind that it’s not all about reaching the throne. As Machiavelli would say, a proper Prince also needs to think about keeping it. And in our modern, liberal international panorama, there are some unacceptable situations which may cause the withdrawal of the international community’s support to China as leader. Three of the most important are described hereunder.


Over the last decades, China has been leaving extreme rural poverty behind. Since the Chinese Economic Reform was implemented in 1978, “more than 850M people have been lifted out of poverty” according to the World Bank (2020). This was the result of the so-called “Socialism with Asian Characteristics” directed by Deng Xiaoping. As explained by Kissinger in World Order (2014), “within less than a generation, China advanced to become the second-largest economy in the world”. The Reform enabled China to climb to the position it occupies today and to pursue global leadership, liberating the “latent energies” of the Chinese. However, despite the outstanding outcome, China’s large numbers of total population make the result in absolute terms not enough. Data from the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics pointed out about 30 million Chinamen still living in a situation of extreme poverty by 2018. Fighting it is becoming increasingly difficult, given that the process and its results work in a similar way to the law of diminishing returns: as less poverty is left, it becomes more costly to reach to it and fight it. Nevertheless, if China wants the position it pursues and wants to be accepted as world leader it will have to find a way to do so.


Parallel to that, China must keep in mind that with industrialization and modernization comes urban poverty: with the expansion of cities, and the growth and improvement of infrastructures in areas formerly based on deeply rooted rural poverty, this new kind of poverty is worryingly increasing in the country, and it will be a very different fight to the one China has been dealing with in recent years. This will require an effort towards an even more intense optimisation of resources, and also towards creativity and expertise in the creation of welfare policies if a country of such size wishes to achieve a general welfare state. If the outcome is good, China will once again be a pioneer, being the first country of such size to take over geographical, demographical and infrastructural imbalances and guarantee a welfare state to such a number of people, and this will immensely reinforce its position as leader.


Another thing to keep in mind by the country is that China’s growth is strongly based on production structures that in the Western Hemisphere are considered exploitation. This could also compromise China’s climb: as a world leader, all the spotlights will be on it for the good, but also for the bad, and practices considered not acceptable by the rest of the countries could compromise their sight of the country as a legitimate leader. China has to find a way to grow without the toll of that growth being too pricey in the eyes of the World. The country is already striving in that direction with ambitious plans such as the Belt and Road Initiative, thanks to which, according to Xi Jinping, “multidimensional cooperation platforms will be developed, and mutual gains and shared development achieved”, thus achieving a higher worldwide homogeneization of the industrial framework and at the same time the – to some extent tacit – acceptance that guarantees its own structure’s legitimacy.

Summing up, we have seen how China’s past has shaped its geo-politically strategical situation. Its strength as a union since ancient times and its dominance ever-since, first as a regional leader and now as potential global leader, are truthfully the right path for this Giant to finally arrive at its long-desired position. It has the precedents, the resources and the potential support to do so, but there are still some challenges in China’s way which imply that this star will probably have to sacrifice some short-term shine, some growth at the top, in order to bring some light to the bottom, push the most disfavoured a bit further up, to diminish the inequality gap and get the acceptance it needs to become a stable long-term world leader, an ever-shining star ahead of the Asian Constellation and not a tremulous candle.

*Nota: Las ideas contenidas en las publicaciones de Cátedra China o de terceros son responsabilidad de sus autores, sin que reflejen necesariamente el pensamiento de esta Asociación.


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