The Sydney Morning Herald

By Stefan Halper

What seemed impossible five years ago is a reality today; China has risen more rapidly and in different ways than most had anticipated. This has profoundly affected the region, the West and the concept of the West.

China has chosen its own path; it will not become a member of the club as Roosevelt had hoped for Stalin. The market will not lead, inexorably, to pluralism and certainly not to democracy, as many in Washington have believed since the 1980s. Rather, China, a developing nation approaching the pinnacle of world power, has legitimised authoritarianism in our time.

Reflecting the view that, ''it's not whose army wins, it's whose story wins'', China will not confront the West on the battlefield, but rather in the markets and in the global information space where Beijing seeks to cast the American enterprise as in decline and frame the public's understanding of events in a China-friendly way. Here, success for Beijing would mean de-legitimising the West's version of events and enfranchising China as a respected, authoritative arbiter of global affairs, particularly among those in the world beyond the West.

China's challenge arrives in several dimensions. It includes economic and security questions and, chiefly, an ideational challenge. There has emerged a battle of ideas about governance that will have far-reaching consequences.

The Chinese have refined the Asian growth model to develop fast-growth, stable, market-authoritarian governance that is admired in the world beyond the West, particularly by Third World leaders. That China has crafted a distinct posture since the Soviet collapse - neither conforming to the US world view, nor confronting, until recently, the US-led system - begs the question of what these trends mean for the West and the idea of the West.

The so-called China effect is seen in several dimensions; it is quietly remaking the landscape of international community and politics, and it is doing so in ways that progressively limit the projection of Western influence beyond the NATO bloc. This process is most pronounced in the Third World, but Second World nations like Syria, Indonesia, and Iran also have regional influence, and are also adopting elements of China's example.

Over time, one effect of China's embrace among Third World nations has been to marginalise the principles that have informed Western governance and progress. This is seen in China's assiduous support for authoritarian regimes across sub-Saharan Africa (Zimbabwe, Sudan, Angola, etc) and its support of authoritarian rulers, such as Gaddafi and Syria's Assad, opposing the Arab Spring. China exports military equipment and technical antidotes developed by its police and military research centres that are used to identify and locate China's 420 million internet users. Authorities across the Middle East are using these technologies to disrupt Twitter, emails, Facebook and texting - social media that have proven vital in mobilising challenges to authoritarian regimes.

In people terms, the China effect means that for those ruled by governments admiring or seeking to replicate China's market-authoritarian example, the prospects of a democratic civil society are remote, perhaps non-existent. Reflecting China's domestic standards, workers' rights and safety and environmental standards are largely ignored by Chinese corporations operating in Africa, prompting many Africans to ask whether the Chinese are making their lunch or eating it.

China is, in effect, catalyst-in-chief for a deep and far-reaching process. Just as globalisation is shrinking the world, China is shrinking the West - its values, principles, and standards - a point underscored in yet another realm by its success in persuading 19 countries to skip the Nobel ceremonies for Liu Xiaobo last year.

These developments place China at the forefront of global trends which embrace a form of capitalism that brings wealth without democracy. Put simply, many leaders in the world beyond the West are replacing the free-market, democratic model. They are substituting it with a market-authoritarian model that opens the economy to investment and market development and allows the ruling party to control the government, the courts, the military and information.

These developments - new centres of economic autonomy beyond the West and the growing appeal of illiberal capitalism - are the dual engines for the diffusion of power away from the West. When added to Beijing's continuing currency manipulation, they are the key force-multipliers in the global rise of China.

Beijing's planners know that in this time of multi-dimensional change, China must frame the Asian story. China will either be seen as Asia's engine of growth, delivering growth, investment, trade and markets to smaller Asian nations, or be defined as a hegemon - a large nation seizing oil, gas, and mineral deposits, a rogue requiring obeisance from others - asserting its interests wrapped in a muscular diplomacy.

To be sure, the China story ''wins''; Beijing invested $6.8 billion last year to create a global network with daily news and commentary in 56 languages on television, radio and in print. The objective is to frame developing stories in a China-friendly way. Beijing is determined to move beyond the days when Tibet stories embarrassed China on the front pages of world newspapers on the eve of the Olympics.

Li Congjun, the president of Xinhua in Beijing, says ''CNC will present an international vision with a Chinese perspective''. He says the focus is on ''improving our ability to guide international opinion''. This initiative is not a public relations effort. It derives from Beijing's strategic calculation that the relative strength of nations in the 21st century will be determined in the global information space where China's story must win.

China is also determined to benefit from the US debt crisis. Beijing will question the continued value of US Treasury bonds; blame stalled markets and slow growth on the US, and highlight the dysfunction in the US Congress. Beijing will hope to use these issues to mis-position the US on geopolitical issues and ideological questions where reliability and strength are critical.

Stefan Halper is a senior fellow in politics and international studies at Cambridge. This an extract from his essay in the latest edition of American Review published by the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, available as an iPad app.