Published: April 2 2005 Go back two or three years and the issue that most occupied the best foreign policy brains was how America would (or should) deploy its unrivalled power in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001. More recently, brows have furrowed over the strategic implications of President George W. Bush's determination to overturn the authoritarian status quo in the Middle East. Like much else, though, foreign policy is a slave to fashion. So the issue of the moment is no longer how the global system adjusts to the American imperium but rather how the US accommodates the world's rising powers, above all China.
The prosaic reality is that all three of these things will remake the geostrategic landscape in the coming decades. The huge uncertainties inherent in each of them - and in the interactions between them - do much to explain why that terrain is still wrapped in a dense fog. Logic says that a world free of cold war nuclear confrontation should be a safer place. But we have learnt that dangerous certainties can seem more reassuring than unpredictable upheavals.
In this context, it is fair to say that the implications of China's rapid emergence as a global power have been neglected. The war in Iraq, the hunt for al-Qaeda, the promised US drive to democratise the Middle East and the splintering of the transatlantic alliance have all grabbed more headlines. China, and for that matter India, have been there in the background. But only recently have the geostrategic implications of China's economic power gained serious attention beyond the think-tanks.
The transatlantic dispute over whether the European Union should lift its embargo on arms sales to Beijing illustrates the point. The ill-considered decision to end the ban did not speak to any serious judgment about how Europe should build a constructive relationship with China. Rather, it reflected an instinctive desire to grab a slice of a lucrative market.
Equally, the Bush administration's angry response to the European proposal was as much about political reflexes as considered judgment. The US administration cannot avoid taking positions towards China, not least because of the security threats posed by tension in the Taiwan Strait and by North Korea's nuclear programme. But Washington's present approach - encouraging China's integration into the global economy while containing its military power and strengthening America's bilateral alliances - scarcely amounts to a strategic map.
A shrewd observer of these things told me recently that historians would look back on November 2004 as the moment when China's economic power translated into a decisive shift in the global political balance. That month, Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, toured Latin America buying up as much iron ore, copper, tin, bauxite and soyabeans as he could find.
This was more, though, than a shopping trip to sate China's voracious appetite for raw materials. As Washington's gaze remained fixed on the Middle East, China was building alliances in America's backyard and making friends of Mr Bush's enemies. In December, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's president and Washington's bÍte noire, visited Beijing to clinch a long-term oil supply agreement. All this, of course, followed other, equally unwelcome, Chinese energy deals with countries such as Sudan and Iran.
I am not sure historians will be as diligent in their research as my friend suggests. What is true is that Chinese power has become ever more apparent even as the Bush administration has hesitated over whether to see it as a strategic partner or rival. During her recent tour of the region, Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, contrived to do both. "We want China as a global partner," she said at one point. Beijing had shown itself an ally in the war on terror and had a critical role in persuading Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons programme. In the next breath, though, she warned that the European decision (now seemingly suspended) to lift the arms embargo, would "upset the balance of power in the region". Beijing, meanwhile, had heightened tensions with Taiwan by passing a new anti-secession law. US efforts to bolster its relationships with Japan, South Korea and India, Ms Rice continued, were calculated to "create an environment in which China will play a positive role". That sounds an awful lot like a policy of containment.
Some of the apparent contradictions are explicable. In any event, geopolitics is rarely neat. But the equivocal US stance also obscures the underlying forces. As a matter of definition, China is a rival to the US. China's thirst for oil and other natural resources apart, for the past 60 years the US has been east Asia's leading power and the sole security guarantor. Beijing's growing influence, political and military as well as economic, promises to end that hegemony. Put simply, China's rise will unavoidably be at the expense of US power. Washington can seek to slow the process with military embargoes and countervailing alliances but it cannot stop it.
The question, then, becomes whether the transition is relatively smooth and co-operative and what, if any, security structure replaces the present Pax America; or whether menace or miscalculation draw the US and China into conflict somewhere along the way.
The dangers are clear enough. The risk of unintended war in Taiwan or the Korean peninsula aside, east Asia has yet to throw off history's grudges and territorial disputes. Renascent Japanese and Chinese nationalism are a reminder of how past rivalries weigh on the region. Alongside these lies the big "known unknown" as to whether China's rising economic power will translate into political change. Will the communist leadership bow to or seek to rein back pressures for greater pluralism? To what extent will it remain in charge of events?
So Washington's instinct is to seek to contain China by acting as the region's balancing force. It may work for a while. The vital missing ingredient for long-term stability, though, is a multilateral security framework in which, albeit with US encouragement, the region's other leading powers can work out their own accommodations. Europe needed the EU and the Atlantic alliance in order to exorcise the demons of its history. Both depended on enlightened self-interest in Washington. But in those days, of course, multilateralism was understood in the White House as a source of strength rather than weakness.