The 21st century is witnessing the decline of the United States as the foremost power in the world, and the gradual emergence of a multipolar order with China at the top, on track to becoming the world’s economic powerhouse. The purpose of this paper is to provide an overarching survey of China’s future role in the world, in parallel with some of the challenges it faces in the coming years and decades. The central theme is going to talk about sustainable development and the corresponding need for China to provide both political leadership and the lead in materializing policies that respect and work with the natural environment, rather than destroy it. At stake is the idea and vision that will replace the American-led world order since the end of the Cold War and it may very well fall to China to provide the needed leadership and insight.
Why is China important?
Since the death of Mao Tse Dong in 1976, China began a gradual opening to world markets, in a framework that combined strong political control of economic policy with a capitalist-influenced model of production and demand. For over three decades now, China has grown at astounding annual rates and has effectively become the se-cond largest economy in the world after the Unit-ed States1. Alongside, it has overtaken America as the biggest exporter and consumer of energy2. In the foreseeable future, we are going to witness America’s gradual decline from the world stage, to be taken up by China in the 21st century. Amer-ica came to the fore after World War II largely due to the fact that it was the only intact economy not destroyed and decimated by war. However, today we live in a unique time – our world is bigger and more connected than anytime in recorded histo-ry. China is becoming a central engine that must not only provide economic leadership, but also a vision for the world with the political will to carry it out.
On a world scale, fossil fuels continue to be the primary method of meeting the energy needs of major countries. One exception is France, whose energy mix is heavily favoured towards nuclear power. However, since sustainable development became a mainstream phrase in the 1980s, the ecological footprint of human activity has be-come an important consideration for projects both in developed and developing countries. The first step in sustainable development lies in devel-oping power generation techniques that mini-mize the reliance on fossil fuels. In the first decade of this century, we have seen several major mile-stones achieved toward renewable energy pro-duction. In absolute numbers, the growth of solar and wind investment has been startling, but rela-tive to overall world energy production, still re-tains a very small share3. Policy-wise, Europe is a leader in encouraging the development of re-newable energy: by 2020, 20% of power generat-ed in the EU must come from renewable sources4. While China’s investment in renewable energy is greater than that of any other country, it is still only having a small impact on the overall energy mix of the country and it is necessary for Beijing to implement a long-term focus in this regard5. However, the emissions of CO2 emitted by China in the coming years are set to increase, and that must be taken into account when talking about renewable energy targets.
Published in Political Reflection Magazine Vol. 3 No. 1