The wisecrack answer to the question as to when is a new generation born, is: about nine o’ clock at night. More seriously, we can now place the moment when the most important power shift of half a millennium reached its tipping point. It is when Britain ignored US opposition and decided a few weeks ago to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that China has proposed to set up. London’s decision was followed in short order by similar swings from west to east in the capitals of the three major economies of continental Europe: Germany, France and Italy. This European pivot to China leaves the United States pretty much stranded, with only Japan for company — and is a measure of how almost no one can now ignore the pulling power of the Chinese market and the dawn of an Asian century.
Beijing has scored another strategic goal by making Russia a “core partner” in its determined push for the Silk Road Economic Belt, at a time when the gulf between Moscow and Western capitals has grown. Those who recall Stalin making Mao wait endlessly in Moscow for an audience, in 1949, will recognise the switch in the role of lead player. Together with the maritime version of the Silk Route, China plans to bring the economies of Asia, Europe and Africa into a closer embrace. Separately, a train service is planned that will take you from Beijing to Moscow in 48 hours — about as much time as it takes to travel from Howrah to Thiruvananthapuram.
India has decided to join the infrastructure bank, and has also joined the BRICS Bank, but has been cool to the idea of the silk routes, keen as it is to maintain its primacy in the Indian Ocean area. But it is a fair bet that, sooner or later, New Delhi will decide that it had better join the Maritime Silk Route initiative as well. The risks from being left out of the Chinese tent are greater than the risks from getting into the tent.
Beijing, therefore, is on its way to making China the Middle Kingdom in a contemporary setting. It may take a few decades to realise its goal in full measure, because the Chinese economy is still barely half the size of the US economy, and is a long way behind it technologically as well as in terms of military strength. China also has none of the soft power appeal that usually goes with international leadership, reflecting the negative characteristics of its political system. But it is the world’s largest manufacturing power, the largest exporter, the largest car market and much else. Though its economic growth rate has slowed down, it remains the largest contributor to global growth. And with its $4-trillion foreign exchange hoard, it has reserve financial power of a kind that an indebted United States does not — power that it knows how to use, such as by coming to Russia’s help after the Western powers imposed economic sanctions on that country.
China’s bid to create and host Asia-centric financial institutions like the BRICS Bank, and to support the multilateral swap arrangements that have grown out of the Chiang Mai initiative, are almost certainly a response to the Western reluctance to give rising powers like China and India proper weight and voting power in existing multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Beijing’s trade, finance and investment initiatives are also a response to the US resolve to keep China out of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership until America has set the rules. As the rising power challenging the entrenched power, Beijing is demonstrating that, not only does it have the power to not be isolated, it is an alternative magnet that is likely to become more powerful over time.