THE CANADIAN PRESS -- Though rapidly gaining influence on the world stage, China will be far too preoccupied with "enormous problems internally" in the coming years to become a so-called superpower, former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger said in his first public debate.
"I believe the next decade will see China wrestling with the problem of how to bring its political institutions in line with its economic development," he said Friday evening in a sold-out debate in Toronto.
"I doubt that a country that will be so preoccupied with this fundamental change will also have time to concentrate on dominating the world."
China's economic, political and geopolitical power were at the heart of the two-hour debate that saw Kissinger and Time magazine's editor-at-large Fareed Zakaria team up to contest the proposition that China could become the No. 1 country in the world.
They faced off against historian and author Niall Ferguson and David Li of the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management in Beijing, who argued the country will grow more assertive as its economy continues to flourish.
In a spirited and teasing debate — one that often saw the debaters pulling quotes from their opponents' books — the four set out to answer the question: Will the 21st century belong to China?
Preliminary results posted on the Munk Debates website from an audience poll showed Kissinger and Zakaria won, with 62% of those who turned in their ballots at the end of the night saying they supported the con side and 38% siding with Ferguson and Li.
A similar poll before the debate put the audience of 2,700 at 40% con, 39% pro and 21% undecided, suggesting Kissinger and Zakaria managed to sway nearly a quarter of the audience.
Kissinger, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped orchestrate the forging of relations between the U.S. and China in the 1970s, said the real challenge will be for the two countries to adjust to a new world order in which neither fully has the upper hand.
"We have to understand that China will get stronger," and must stop interpreting its every move as an act of aggression, he said.
"But China has to learn some self-limitation in the way it vindicates its interests around the world" or risk alienating — or worse, provoking — other governments, he added.
However, Ferguson, who is currently writing a biography of Kissinger, said the West is no longer in a position to put pressure on China since it relies so heavily on Chinese investments to bolster its flagging economy.
"First comes economic power, then geopolitical power," he said.
The country won't be held back by internal struggles with environmental issues, a growing income divide as well as social and political unrest, Ferguson said, dismissing his opponents' main argument.
"It is precisely when nations are struggling with problems of internal political reform and challenges from below that they are most likely to pursue a more assertive and aggressive foreign policy," he said.
"That is one reason why I think it is precisely at this time of political stress that we are likely to see a more nationalistic and more assertive China."
The host of CNN's foreign affairs program "Fareed Zakaria GPS" said China's staggering growth isn't sustainable and will likely peter out in the coming decades.
"Nothing goes up in a straight line forever," Zakaria said in his opening statement.
Japan was once predicted to become the next global superpower, but never lived up to the expectations, he said, adding China will likely follow the same pattern.
But Li countered that his homeland's eagerness for change, largely powered by youth increasingly exposed to foreign ideas and experiences, will continue to propel it forward.
"We still have gas in our gas tank," he quipped in his closing arguments.
The discussion drew a number of questions from notable members of the audience, including former U.S. secretary of defense William Cohen, who served under then-president Bill Clinton.
The Munk debates take place twice a year in Toronto. The events bring together some of the world's foremost policy-makers and commentators to discuss current and often controversial global issues.
Past debates have focused on the value of religion and the safety of the world under a Republican U.S. president.