The world economic order is changing fast. In 2007, China overtook Germany to become the third largest economy. Three months ago it surpassed Japan and became number two, and this month the Conference Board, a respected non-profit organisation in the United States, predicted that, on a purchasing power parity basis, China may overtake the US in 2012.
As China and others have risen, the US perforce has declined. What are the implications of the emerging world order? Will any other country be willing to play the role that the United States has assumed for the past 65 years?
Charles Freeman, a former US ambassador who was considered by the Obama administration to be chairman of the National Intelligence Council, gave a thoughtful talk about these issues recently at the Hopkins-Nanjing Centre.
He cited some stark statistics to indicate that Washington can no longer play its wonted role. 'The US federal government's revenues from all sources will total US$2.2 trillion this year,' he said. 'Transfer payments to individuals for unemployment, pensions, health care, and other entitlements of a decent and civilised society will total US$2.4 trillion.'
That is to say, America must borrow US$200 billion before it even begins to pay for basic government operations.
For China, it means that the peaceful world order in which it grew so rapidly over the past three decades may be in jeopardy. 'In the absence of rules, fortune favours the fierce,' Freeman said. 'It is not out of the realm of possibility that the world may be in the process of reverting to levels of strife that have not been seen since the Pax Americana was instituted 65 years ago.'
While many joke about the US playing the role of 'Globocop', there are serious consequences the world will have to face if America should be unable to continue to do this. There is a danger that the law of the jungle will apply.
Something has to be done to plug the gap being left by America.
The US provided such things as 'protection of global freedom of navigation, secure access to energy supplies, a global economic system based on the dollar as a universal medium of exchange, an open trading and investment regime [and] constraints on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction'.
Given the reduced role of the US, Freeman asked, would China and other countries take an active role in sustaining a harmonious international order? China denies any ambition to be a world hegemon and is unlikely to want to assume this role. In fact, there is no likely candidate. The likelihood is that the world will enter a new phase without a hegemon.
The financial and economic order created by the US enabled China to grow rich over the past three decades. Surely, it is in China's interest to maintain such an order.
If the US should withdraw precipitately, the world would have gone from a situation in which two superpowers confronted one another during the cold war, to that of a single superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to a situation where there is, in effect, no dominant power.
In such a transformed world, countries will have to try their best to resolve their own problems, without looking for help from Washington. Regional architecture will assume new importance. This is not necessarily bad, but the downside is grave.
While China may be revelling in its new, exalted status, it must also realise that power comes with responsibility.
Already, China has won some respect within the international community. But it must be willing to accept additional responsibilities that reflect its new status, even though there are some in China who seemingly want power without responsibility, on the grounds that accepting additional responsibilities will slow down China's continued growth.
Yet such an attitude would not sit well with China's new status as a global power.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator