Speaking at an event in Yorkshire, the author and academic Martin Jacques questioned whether the declining West could “grasp the future” and engage with China, which earlier this year overtook the United States as the world’s largest economy in purchasing power parity.
The shift in global power will have a profound political, intellectual, cultural and moral impact on international affairs, added Mr Jacques.
Mr Jacques said: “Britain is still caught in an obsolescent mindset, where we are still living in a world we are accustomed to rather than a world that is coming into existence.
“This requires a dramatic change in the way in which we think of ourselves and we think of the rest of the world and our place in the world.
“The arguments over Britain’s relationship with the European Union are a sideshow because that’s arguing over the placement of the furniture, it is not arguing about the shape of the house.
“The shape of the house is going to change very profoundly.”
The author of best-selling book When China Rules The World was speaking at an event to commemorate the 10th anniversary of a partnership between Leeds Metropolitan University and the College of Management at Zhejiang University of Technology, Hangzhou, China.
He explained to an audience of Yorkshire business leaders and academics how China, a nation of 1.3bn people, has been through a process of radical transformation since launching a programme of reforms in 1978.
China’s economy has grown at a rate of 10 per cent a year and by 2030 is forecast to be twice the size of the US economy and greater than the US and European economies put together, according to Mr Jacques.
He said Chinese people are very optimistic about their future prosperity, compared to those in the West who are displaying levels of pessimism not seen since the 1930s.
But as China becomes the dominant global player it is a mistake to think it will become more Western, argued Mr Jacques.
“This is own hubris, this is our own arrogance. China is different,” he said.
Instead, the West must work to understand China and its history and culture, he added.
Mr Jacques described China as a “civilisation state” with more than 2,000 years of history, which places great importance on unity, stability and order.
In contrast, the default mode of Europe is fragmentation into lots of nation states, he said. And just because past empires of the West were aggressive and expansionist, it does not follow that China will be the same; Mr Jacques said China has a “stay at home” sense of universalism. He added: “Their attitude is ‘we are the most developed part of the world, our culture and our civilisation is superior to all others so why would we want to step outside China into darkened shades of barbarity?’”
China will seek to exercise its power and influence, but through economic and cultural means rather military or political, he added. As a consequence, for Westerners the world will become increasingly less familiar.
“We have been very privileged. The furniture of the world has been our furniture, our creation. That’s not going to continue in the future,” he warned.
“The question is, can we adapt to this? This is going to be an enormous historical shock.”
In response, Britons should learn Mandarin and political leaders should stop lecturing their Chinese counterparts over human rights and learn about Chinese culture.