Geographies in Depth

Is China the new world power? The view from Davos

A man waves a Chinese flag as Pope Francis leads his Sunday Angelus prayer in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican July 17, 2016. REUTERS/Tony Gentile  - RTSICWA

Image: REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Anna Bruce-Lockhart
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Global Governance

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

As America and parts of Europe contemplate protectionism, and globalization and free trade come under threat, can China emerge as a leader in the new world order?

Let's look at the evidence. With a population of 1.3 billion, China recently became the world's second-largest economy. It contributed 39% to world growth in 2016, according to the IMF, and its influence in the global economy is growing. President Xi Jinping's participation at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting this week was the first time a Chinese president had ever attended Davos and has been viewed as a signal of his growing engagement with world affairs.

In his opening address, Xi told a packed conference hall that the Chinese were “leaders of our times”. He said his county was ready to make globalization work for everyone, and not just the few. “The people of all countries expect nothing less from us, and this is our unshirkable responsibility as leaders of our times,” he said.


Xi also emerged as a global voice on free trade. Speaking only two months after US President Donald Trump announced plans to ditch the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Xi called for nations to reject the protectionism threatening multilateral trade agreements and embrace the win-win potential of interconnected growth.

“We should commit ourselves to growing an open global economy,” he said. “No one will emerge as the winner in a trade war.”

There's really nothing to fear in Chinese expansion, says business magnate Jack Ma, also speaking at Davos this week. In fact, China’s rise should be seen as a potential benefit to both sides of the Atlantic, offering the US the opportunity to export goods to the increasingly stable economy. Ma is the founder of Alibaba Group, the Chinese e-commerce phenomenon now considered to be the world's largest retailer, surpassing Wal-Mart last year.


But it's not only China's political and economic clout that is in the ascendant: its clean energy sector is growing too. In his Davos address, Xi urged countries to stick to their emissions targets and honour international contracts such as the Paris climate deal.

This is no empty rhetoric: China has made striking progress in green energy over the past decade, investing over $100 billion in renewable sources, an increase from $3 billion just over 10 years ago.

As America’s status as the world’s foremost economic power hangs in the balance, does the world stand ready to embrace China’s rising star?

In an increasingly multipolar world, the answer is not clear-cut, the economist Nouriel Roubini told an audience at Davos.

"China is not the global leader, it's one of the rising great powers in the world."

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