The US and others have been slower on the uptake. For decades in the middle of the last century, we were stuck in the Cold War mentality, compounded by “Western” superiority; reflected in the McCarthy era question: “Who lost China?” (as if it were ours to lose). Nixon and Kissinger started the “normalization” process in 1972. But it took the economic revival spurred by Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s/80s to really change things. Still, it took more than twenty years following the fall of (European) Communism for President Obama to announce (2011) that US foreign policy would “pivot to Asia.”
That was a bit of a muddled policy (followed by the rudderless animosity of the Trump years) didn’t bring any coherence to how we think of China (as long as they make good and cheap iPhones).
All of this is prefatory to a couple of observations about China’s place in the world in the 21C:
First, China was an empire for thousands of years and, just like Russia (whose empire was recast under 75 years of Communist/republican governmental structure), China continues as an empire even while spouting Marxist/Leninist/Maoist/Xi-ist theory about republicanism and the power of the “people.” While over 90% of the population remains Han Chinese, that still leaves well over 100 million other ethno-linguistic groups within its borders. As Tibetans and Uighurs (among others) can attest, the People’s Republic has been brutal in its efforts to marginalize and convert these other people, cultures, and religions into compliance. In this regard, China is following a pretty standard program of domestication and cultural assimilation (often forcible) practiced by other great land empires (e.g. Russia, the US, Nazi Germany).
Second, China is still sorting out the nature of its global “informal” empire. Classic European empires (e.g., Spain, Britain) profited by extracting raw materials from dominated areas and selling processed/manufactured goods and services back to the world. The Soviet Empire of the 20C reversed this model by shipping its own raw materials to Central Europe for processing and re-importing the finished products.
More generally, there is no question but that China has been constructing its own global informal empire, most notably through its “Belt-and-Road” initiative. They have been buying and building ports, factories and mines around the world in order to facilitate the flow of raw materials in and finished products out across Asia and extensively in Africa. They even started a project to build a new canal in Nicaragua to compete with the Panama Canal. It’s not clear that they studied and learned the lessons on how to do this from the (pretty successful) British experience, since many of these investments have proved to be dead ends or have engendered resentment from these new quasi-colonies.
However, one of the most interesting juxtapositions of recent geopolitical history has been the rise of China and decline of Russia. Russia has lots of natural resources, a need to protect its Asian flank, and a shared desire with China to constrain US global hegemony. China has capital, booming technology, and a sense of energy; all of which Russia lacks. If “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” then this is relationship worth watching. After the arrogance of the Stalin/Khrushchev/Brezhnev years towards Mao’s China, it would be a delicious irony to see Russia as the “jewel in the crown” of a 21C Chinese empire.
More immediately, Chinese expansionism (Hong Kong, Taiwan, most of the South China Sea) reflects the reality of actual global military/economic power. In terms of its regional aspirations, there is really no one to overcome Chinese desires. But things are more complicated further afield. Even with modern technologies, there are real limits on the ability of China to project its power. Even with a population four times that of the US and three times that of the EU (although likely to be passed by India in five years), and a (so far) dynamic economy, the likelihood of a multi-centric world for as far out as we can reasonably plan remains quite high. China’s Zhongguó vision works at the East Asian level, but not globally, but this limitation will be difficult for the Chinese to comprehend.
A final, historical note: the Chinese plausibly trace their lineage as a coherent political entity back for thousands of years, longer than any other group in human history. That’s not to say that there weren’t many interregna, invasions, take-overs by Mongols and Manchurians, wars, and revolutions along the way. In other words, there were long periods when China wasn’t a coherent entity, much less the center of the world. In addition, the track record of multi-national empires isn’t great from our perspective in the modern/techno/global 21C. As a result, there’s no clear “lessons from history” here with regard to the path or success of the current Chinese Empire, ancient ideologies/myths notwithstanding.