London: Since the Nineties, China has been rolling back America’s reach in the western Pacific. A jaw-dropping symbol of rapidly changing times is the 60,000-ton aircraft carrier in the docks behind the Ikea superstore in the port city of Dalian.
Any shopper stumbling out through the back door of the blue-and-yellow building would be confronted by the aircraft carrier.
This huge ship – nearly three times the size of Britain’s sole remaining carrier, HMS Illustrious – was originally built in the Soviet Union.
Still under construction, it was bought by a Hong Kong company, which claimed it was going to tow the ship to Macau and turn it into a floating hotel and casino.
According to the Daily Mail, the aircraft carrier is the first unambiguous sign that China intends to project its military power far beyond its own shores. China has already converted two former Soviet aircraft carriers into gambling dens, so this was not as far-fetched as it sounded, but the third ship never reached Macau. It was taken to Dalian, painted in the colours of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and fitted with a flight deck and new guns and missiles.
Senior officers in Beijing, however, insist that they would never use the aircraft carrier for a military-related task, even though that is the only thing aircraft carriers are good for.
American military power still dwarfs China’s. The USA has 11 carrier groups, while China is still building its first; and, by China’s own admission, American technology is 20 years ahead.
When historians a century from now look back on China’s rise to global power, the carrier behind the Ikea store may stand out as the turning point.
Last week’s events suggest strongly that the East is, in fact, gaining ground on the West, faster than earlier predicted. The next few years may be the most important since the end of the Cold War.
For 300 years, the West has enjoyed an enormous military lead over the rest, but this is now being eroded – because the West is going broke.
Last week, the Federal Reserve’s latest survey of the American economy showed that growth has slowed in several regions across the USA in May.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the British Retail Consortium said that retail sales had slipped in May, and the Bank of England kept interest rates at the record low of 0.5 per cent.
The world has never seen a financial shift as abrupt as that from America to East Asia.
The global balance of wealth is driven by deep forces that no individual or government can control.
In fact, America can no more stop China’s ascent in the early 21st Century than Britain could stop America’s in the early 20th. The signs are everywhere.
Prestigious Italian fashion house Prada announced it was going public but will list its shares in Hong Kong, not Milan. The reason? East Asia is where people can afford Prada.
Half a world away, Harrods has set up 75 terminals where Mandarin-speakers can advise Chinese customers on their purchases of Louis Vuitton bags, Hermes scarves and Burberry coats.
No one can stop the eastward shift of power and wealth; but the West can still shape the form it takes
In China, where the economy has grown by ten per cent each year, military spending has quadrupled since 1996 and seems set to grow even faster across the present decade.