By David Kang

The “rise of the rest” will be both less transformative and yet more consequential than many may think. The continuing emergence of other centers of economic vitality will be less transformative than some fear because all countries today unquestioningly accept the basic foundations of the Western, “Westphalian” international system. All countries accept the idea that nation-states and sovereignty are the basic units of global relations, and that these relations are non-hierarchical and bring with them a set of responsibilities.

Furthermore, countries like China and India are slowly joining the existing set of international institutions and norms, not challenging them. For example, China has joined the WTO, the UN, the IMF, and many other of the existing regional and global multilateral institutions that govern economic and diplomatic relations among countries. Not only has China increasingly joined these institutions in the past 30 years, it has worked within them and adjusted to them, not necessarily challenged them.  As Shiro Armstrong notes, “By any reasonable measure, the institutional reforms that China signed onto when it acceded to the WTO have been implemented faithfully, and disputes with major partners have mostly been contained within the WTO system.”

In sum, emerging countries do not offer any alternatives to the existing liberal international order, nor do they show any signs of searching for alternatives. Instead, countries such as China and India appear to accept unquestioningly the basic rules and norms of the international order.

However, the rise of these other countries will be more consequential than some may think, as well. The United States does not have extensive experience in actually sharing its leadership role with other countries, nor is it used to being a follower in anything. Yet it is quite likely that over the next generation some countries may challenge the right of the U.S. to lead the liberal international order.

The time may come when the U.S. lives within institutions of our own design, but which are increasingly influenced and perhaps led by other countries, whose preferences on specific issues may not be the same as Washington’s.

For example, Vinod Aggarwal and Steve Weber recently argued that “emerging markets will be increasingly bold in asserting their views about the management of the global economy,” and that we should expect to see increasing challenges to U.S. domination of the IMF and World Bank. Others point to the loss of the dollar as the unquestioned reserve currency in the world; indeed, just this week China and Japan agreed to directly trade their yen-yuan currencies, eliminating the role the U.S. dollar plays in setting the exchange rate between the 2nd and 3rd largest economies in the world. The countries of ASEAN and China, Japan, and South Korea increasingly have created a set of regional institutional mechanisms covering a variety of economic relations without the presence of the U.S.

The key issue in world politics, however, is not about power, but about leadership. And the key aspect to leadership is whether other countries are willing to follow. If there are no followers, there is no leader. Viewed in this light, none of the emerging countries have yet presented new ideas for managing the international order that garner enthusiastic followers. In fact, China, India, Brazil, and other emerging countries do not even appear to be attempting to do so at this stage.

As for China in particular, can China ever return to its historical position as a center of cultural, economic, and political innovation, where other states admiringly look to it as model, guide, and inspiration? There is grudging respect for Chinese economic accomplishments over the past three decades, to be sure. But there is just as much wariness about Chinese cultural and political beliefs. The Chinese people—as evidenced by the hysterical response to protests about Tibet in the spring and summer of 2008—show that they are far from comfortable with their own position in the world and how they are perceived by others.

Given the central role of the United States around the globe, there is almost no chance that China will replace the U.S. and become the unquestioned leader in global economic affairs. The United States—even as it adjusts to changing and difficult circumstances—is not going to disappear. The United States remains too central and too powerful, and American (and Western) ideals have become too deeply accepted around the globe, for the United States not to be important.

Perhaps the most important question is whether the United States, with its very Western way of viewing the world, and China, with a potentially different way of viewing the world, can come to some type of accommodation and agreement on each others’ roles and their relations with each other. While to date both the United States and China are working to accommodate each other and stabilize their relations, that process is far from complete. How these two countries manage East Asian (and global) leadership, the status they accord each other, and how other regional countries come to view them will be central aspects of whether or not the future of East Asian international relations is one of increasing stability.

Despite some domestic troubles, America will remain the most powerful, and richest, country in the world for the foreseeable future. However, the era of clear leadership, implicit dominance, and deference from other countries may be slowly ending. Put a little more bluntly, the question for the United States may come down to this: What if China actually rises peacefully – can the U.S. live with that?

David C. Kang is Professor of International Relations and Business at the University of Southern California, where he also directs the Korean Studies Institute and the East Asian Studies Center. His latest book is East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (Columbia University Press, 2010).