(First of Two Parts)
When historians look back on the second decade of the 21st century, three events may well stand out from this year as seminal harbingers of major trends impacting the world for decades to come. One involves the largest global religion, the second signals the rise of an Asian superpower, and the third points the way forward for international trade.
The election of Pope Francis, Beijing’s more assertive geopolical stance under new President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” ideology, and the limited agreement in Bali to further liberalize global trade may well have set Christianity, China and commerce on the road to immensely significant changes, along with the world as we know it.
To be sure, future events could prove this prognosis wrong, especially if the first Holy Father from the developing world fails to make serious headway against Catholic conservatives, the People’s Liberation Army’s muscle-flexing prods the rest of Asia to join America in constricting China, and the unimpressive outcome of the Doha Round trade negotiations leads to backsliding into protectionism.
Maybe, but much less likely than the opposite trends of a more open Church, a regionally dominant China, and more trade liberalization, though mainly through regional blocs. Here’s why.
For more relevant and redeeming Catholicism
The ascendancy of Pope Francis, while surprising even seasoned Vatican watchers, is in fact largely the result of long-burgeoning factors recasting the Catholic Church for decades and prodding it in new directions. The election of a Supreme Pontiff from the Third World was long in coming, but also widely expected due to demographic realities.
With countless Westerners losing their faith even as believers surged outside Christianity’s European heartland, the Americas now hold the largest regional group of Catholics, while Africa has seen the fastest growth. So it was just a matter of time before a non-European became Bishop of Rome.
Indeed, the future Pope Francis, Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, reportedly came in second in the 2005 conclave that elevated German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to succeed John Paul II. The faithful outside Europe wielded clout even then.
The collective perspectives and imperatives of Catholics worldwide are also driving Francis’s Papacy as he seeks to make the two-millennia-old religion far more relevant, responsive and, most of all, redeeming to humanity than in recent decades. It is those demands of the faithful that drive change—and will make it hard to reverse. It’s nearly impossible to make people give back the bounties given to them, whether material or spiritual.
Of course, the big question is what reforms and initiatives Francis will undertake and whether he and his allies in the quest for Catholic renewal can break through obstacles and mindsets blocking change. The same questions faced the pope who unleashed the most far-reaching and monumental reform in the Church in the past century: John XXIII (1881-1963), due to be canonized in April, along with John Paul II.
Supreme Pontiff for barely five years till his death in 1963, the former cardinal-patriarch of Venice, Vatican ambassador, and military chaplain was elected as a transitional figure, given his age of 76—as old as Francis. But John XXIII’s papacy launched Catholicism’s most dramatic changes in the modern era, from expanding the College of Cardinals with a vastly most international membership, to revising Canon Law and convening the Second Vatican Council.
Like John XXIII, Francis is stirring excitement inside and outside the Church with his more open, liberal perspective and manner after a succession of largely conservative popes. His initiatives to reform Vatican finances show how willing he is to take on entrenched Church entities in pursuit of renewal. With judicious leadership, the faithful’s support, and prayerful inspiration, the Argentine Pope can bring the Church closer to humankind in the 21st Century, and thus bring more believers into the Catholic fold.
The Chinese Dream meets Pax Americana
If Pope Francis wants Catholicism to win more adherents by addressing the concerns of modern humanity, The Chinese Dream campaign of President Xi Jinping envisions a strong nation also with a markedly enhanced position on the world stage. The challenging package of reforms approved by the October plenum of the ruling Communist Party aims to further modernize and stabilize the economy by slashing credit inefficiencies and boosting domestic demand, with much overseas approval.
But strengthening China also has a side that worries the world, especially America and its allies wary of what Washington sees as Beijing’s drive to dominate Asia. Amid China’s controversial declaration last month of an air defense identification zone overlapping with Japan’s ADIZ and encompassing Japanese-ruled, Chinese-claimed islands, military assets of China and the United States directly engaged one another—peacefully so far—for the first time since the 1950s Korean War.
The near-collision early this month between the USS Cowpens missile cruiser and a PLA warship escorting its lone aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, demonstrates Beijing’s new assertiveness beyond national borders, even in confrontation with the world’s sole superpower. As other rising nations did in centuries past, including then-upstart America telling Imperial Europe to leave the Western Hemisphere alone in 1823, China is now pushing strongly abroad, not just economically, but geopolitically.
It is now the leading trading partner of the great majority of nations, eclipsing the US in recent years. Its state companies are top buyers and investors, further boosting Beijing’s clout, especially among developing economies, including Southeast Asia’s. And even America and Japan have huge economic reasons to stay on China’s good side: it is Washington’s biggest foreign creditor, with well over $1 trillion in US. Treasury bills, and top US and Japanese corporations have mammoth investments and trade with China.
Bottom line: Like America since the 1820s, resurgent China will claim its place among the leading world powers. There will be more ADIZ-type tense episodes as well as close calls like the near-miss between PLA and Seventh Fleet vessels, especially as China moves to secure its sea lanes, especially from the Middle East.
But both sides will much prefer to work things out, not fight it out. They have too much to lose in a war. Indeed, the Global Trends 2030 report by Washington’s own National Intelligence Council sees a world partnership between the United States and China as the best scenario for the coming decades.
(The last part will be published on Friday.)