Will the year of 2017 be remembered in history as the year in which the US, willing or not, passed the baton as the world leader to China, exactly one century after it took it entering the First World War? Actually, whether we like it or not, the baton as first world economy was already going to be passed soon. But the US officially withdrawal from the 21st century world order, abdicating from the role of cornerstone of that order, with Trump “America first” exceptionalism and retrenchment, could make space for a new leader in the 21st century: China. From the leadership of a thalassocracy (sea power) like the US it seems we are passing to the leadership (or at least co-leadership) of a tellurocracy (land power) like China (if in the future together with another tellurocracy, the EU). Two events could have marked this passage in the last days: the launch in Pekin on May 14 of One belt one road initiative, in which no Western high leadership accepted to participate (most of the countries sent low level representatives) apart the Italian Prime Minister (being Venice, from Marco Polo Silk Road remembrance, included in the project), and the American withdraw from Paris Agreement on Climate Change on June first, an agreement made after many years of discussions by the UN, and especially suited for the US. But already with the US retreat from TPP and the EU new defense projects the cards started to be reshuffled.
The first event is especially important because represent a development strategy proposed by China based on cooperation between 68 Eurasian countries for the creation of the land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the oceans-based “Maritime Silk Road”. It is a major plan for the next decades and is not only referred to infrastructures in order to make countries growth before to trade with them. It is also an attempt to alleviate the poverty and insecurity of these countries all together, because global challenges require global response. As Xi Jinping said: “the world must unite like a flock of geese”.
The second event, is especially important because independently from the fact that in 4 years a new President could change again the decision (this is the blessing and curse of democracy) the US lost the most important element of a leadership: the credibility. Actually, the European allies said already that the agreement will not be renegotiated after the American withdraw. A similar thing will happen also when Trump, in all likelihood, will withdraw from the Iranian agreement, making it clear that international agreements for global challenges are what they are: multinational, and so one part, even if is the strongest one, cannot decide for all the rest. These two events also cast a light on the understanding of the current losing of appeal by democracies all over the world, being two very different expressions of the actions of a democracy and an autocracy: short term and long-term policies. But this is another story.
These two events, even if they will not have a tremendous impact at international level as it happens with total wars (like the world wars) or at domestic level with a revolution (like the Russian revolution in 1917) or the implosion of an empire (like the end of Soviet Union in 1991), represent two major symbolic political moments that future historians will probably remember as the start of 21st century, even more than 9/11. Because 9/11 represented rather the end of the unipolar moment, while the 2017, with the formalization of Brexit, the Trump policies of retreat from TPP and Climate agreements and China’s full step in globalization, marks the start of a multipolar century, with a new realignment: the moving of the pendulum back to Asia.
Nevertheless, there are two good news for all the nations of the planet, including America: the first is that the new world order, that will be organized more by China, will be based on economic means, not military ones. Security at international level will not see a policeman like it has been during the short unipolar moment, for the good and for the bad. The hope here is that with shared economic growth there will be less need of conflicts, at least interstate ones (unfortunately, the intrastate ones will probably continue for the time being). The second good news is that all the world, that is Eurasia, Africa and America, including the US, is welcome to participate in a new world order, in a convergent way. The world order coming from Asia, even if with some imperialist elements (at the end of the day the infrastructures will be paid by each countries with loans from China, so all countries will be in debt with China) will not be conflictual with the rest (as the Western world order has often be, from the colonial times to the neocolonial ones). All the major experts on China agree on a peaceful and benevolent rise of China. At one condition: that we trust China as possible ally and not on the contrary suspect her as a sure rival and enemy of the old liberal Western order. Otherwise the self-fulfilling prophecy of creating our own enemy will be realized. The Chinese domestic issues, including democratic practices, will take time to be dealt with, as culture matter. All this doesn’t mean that China will be always going up without problems, as in the humankind issues there are always trends and countertrends, and China will have its own internal social and political crisis and economic decline too…but not for some time yet.
The multipolar world already started and we are at a crossroads: we, the so called “West”, meaning the EU and the US (the UK for its own decision will not count much in the future world arena) must decide, if to accept the challenge of growing together, or trying to cling to an old order that is no more. Nothing is eternal, no empires are exempt from decline and no country or sets of countries can last more than a while as world leaders (we saw it through history). The West doesn’t need to give up the military superiority (even if always balanced by Russia) but it needs to accept that all major nations will want spheres of influence in their regions. We cannot cast our presence all over the world anymore, not only because of the imperial overstretching but because of the facts on the ground: there is a moment for everything and for everyone.
So what will be the future? There are two famous theories in International Relations theory regarding conflict or cooperation that can help us to try to foresee the future: the Thucydides trap and the Prisoner dilemma. If we will follow the path of the Thucydides Trap (with the typical Western mistrust) we could go to war with China. If instead we will follow the path of the Iterated Prisoner Dilemma (with an atypical Western will to cooperate instead of dominating) we will go towards world prosperity with the return of Pax Sinica after two millennia (and possibly with the inclusion of Islamic ethical values on brotherhood and the Indian and aboriginal ones on protection of mother nature). The first one is a path to disaster and despair, based on individual and national interests instead of global ones. The second one is a shared and consensual path, based on covenants and agreements, on diplomacy and trust between the American thalassocracy, that will still probably be in control of the seas, being in the middle of the oceans, and the Chinese tellurocracy, that will be the land based hegemon of the Eurasian mass, together with the other super power on the other end of the big continent, the EU. It is the convergence of civilizations (instead of the ill-fated clash) that we can build for this century and even may be millennia. Posterity (if there will be one before colonizing other planets) will judge.
SOME OTHER ARTICLES ON THE TOPIC
 When China Rules the World: The Rise Of The Middle Kingdom And The End Of The Western World, Martin Jacques, Penguin, 2012.