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China: Is it the future of world politics – or not?

Colonel Sanders is looking young - and Chinese - at the opening of a new KFC outlet in Beijing.

It’s well past time that people woke up to China’s role in the world and I don’t just mean noticing “Made in China” on the base of that thing you’ve just bought. (It’s probably from Vietnam or the Philippines these days anyway – or perhaps Madagascar if it’s clothing.) And eating Chinese doesn’t count either.

It’s crazy how tightly schools cling to European languages to the exclusion of Chinese. Sure, Spanish can be number one – it’s on the doorstep, good weather, world language, beautiful songs. But why should Chinese be relegated below French, German, Russian (!), Italian, Latin, Greek, etc?

Then again, there are some people who are in a constant tizzy about the spread of Chinese influence – soft power, economic investment, military infiltration. The panic has reached such intensity in parts of the blogosphere that it reminds me of that old cartoon (anyone know it?) that had Americans imagining that it was Vietnam bordering Texas instead of Mexico. (Though with the low intensity warfare going on in Mexico these days…)

So is China really the future? Is western democracy tired and doomed to go down with the listing economic ship? Have the Chinese actually got it right in terms of development and never mind the niceties of freedom?

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“There are worse things than extreme tyranny…”

The Revenge of Geography by Robert D Kaplan is an alarming – or alarmist – view of an unstable political future for what he calls the  “shatter zones” of Eurasia. Some critics say Kaplan is too fond of war, but it’s an interesting read whether you agree or not. Here’s the opening, and some excerpts:

 “When rapturous Germans tore down the Berlin Wall 20 years ago it symbolized far more than the overcoming of an arbitrary boundary. It began an intellectual cycle that saw all divisions, geographic and otherwise, as surmountable; that referred to “realism” and “pragmatism” only as pejoratives; and that invoked the humanism of Isaiah Berlin or the appeasement of Hitler at Munich to launch one international intervention after the next. In this way, the armed liberalism and the democracy-promoting neoconservatism of the 1990s shared the same universalist aspirations. But alas, when a fear of Munich leads to overreach the result is Vietnam—or in the current case, Iraq.

“And thus began the rehabilitation of realism, and with it another intellectual cycle. “Realist” is now a mark of respect, “neocon” a term of derision. The Vietnam analogy has vanquished that of Munich…  …and this is the key insight of the past two decades—that there are worse things in the world than extreme tyranny, and in Iraq we brought them about ourselves. I say this having supported the war.

“And of all the unsavory truths in which realism is rooted, the bluntest, most uncomfortable, and most deterministic of all is geography.

 “Man and not nature initiates, but nature in large measure controls.”

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