Here's the thing. History shows that most of these transitions, just over two-thirds, end in wars between the rivals. Britain yielded to America peacefully, perhaps even thankfully, but the cultural, economic and political bonds that existed between Westminster and Washington aren't shared between Washington and Beijing. Not even remotely.
Fortunately we have today what's called a 'global rules-based order' created by the United States in the aftermath of World War II. That ought to ease the return to a multi-polar world. Except that the adversaries seem to have lost their enthusiasm for rules-based order. The international editor of the Sydney Morning Herald writes that the era of cool rationality is being displaced by a US/China Fight Club.
The US is throwing punches wildly at smaller powers, imposing trade penalties in breach of the global rules. China is grabbing the maritime territories of smaller neighbours and building military bases on them, in stunning disregard of the international order.
"Neither the current occupant of the White House nor of Zhongnanhai is convinced of the merits of the rules based order," says the Lowy Institute head, Michael Fullilove, in measured understatement. Zhongnanhai is Beijing's red-walled leadership compound.
And, not content to hit smaller nations, the two biggest powers increasingly are going at each other. Not only are they directly hitting each other with trade sanctions and bulking up for actual warfare, they are starting to wall off the world economy into competing blocs.
It's not a Cold War, where two separate ideological spheres stand in readiness to annihilate each other. The flow of commerce between the US and China remains the biggest on earth. But the trend is all one way. Not yet a Cold War but a cooling peace is under way. Quite abruptly, globalisation is a quaint old notion.
... Steve Bannon, ...said that Trump was preparing for a "clash of civilizations". But a few weeks ago we heard a senior diplomat in the US State Department tell a public forum: "This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology and the US hasn't had that before.”
Kiron Skinner, the director of policy planning, said the State Department was working on a policy document of the scale of the famous "Letter X" of 1947 that set out US Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union. Today, she said, Russia was much the lesser threat, a "global survivor". But of China, she said: "We see it as a more fundamental long-term threat. In China, we have an economic competitor, we have an ideological competitor, one that really does seek a global reach that many of us didn't expect a couple of decades ago."That noise you can hear clear across the Pacific is Beijing's sabre-rattling.
Xi sent his top general, China's Defence Minister Wei Fenghe to deliver a message to a major forum, the ShangriLa Dialogue, in Singapore on Sunday. Speaking of the trade war with Washington, he said: "If they want to talk, we will keep our doors open. If they want to fight, we will fight to the end."
He defended China's burgeoning military budget by citing a line from China's national anthem: "'Arise all those who do not want to be enslaved' - we vow not to give a single inch of our land."
The President himself shows a gentler face to the outside world but doesn't shy away from blunt military talk at home. Whenever he tours Chinese military bases he instructs his troops to "prepare to fight to win".
His regime is gearing for a longer struggle against the US. In the last two weeks the state broadcaster changed its schedule to screen a series of old Chinese propaganda movies about China's glorious fight against American troops in the Korean War. The films pointedly remind everyone that the US did not win that war.
...As the great powers shape up against each other, the lesser ones are overlooked, the rules forgotten. Singapore's Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, on Friday reminded us of something his father liked to say: "When elephants fight, the grass is trampled; when elephants make love, the grass also suffers." Australia, like Singapore, and most nations, risks getting trampled.
While all eyes were on the US and China at the ShangriLa conference on the weekend, the head of Fiji's military, Admiral Viliame Naupoto, got the attention of one of the smaller sessions with this remark: "I believe there are three major powers in competition in our region."
Three? "There is the US, it has always been there, forever. There is China, which has been a loyal friend to many of us. The third competitor is climate change. Of the three, climate change is winning."Admiral Naupoto is, of course, right. Climate change, the great destabilizer. We've already seen how it can undermine governments of smaller nations. Yet both China and the United States are squarely in its crosshairs. So too are all the nations of Asia from Afghanistan to Japan. Both the British Ministry of Defence and the Pentagon have confirmed that climate change will be a major threat multiplier in coming decades.
Adding another layer to this is historical grievance what Chinese call their "century of humiliation" illustrated above with American and European powers subjugating and pillaging the Chinese nation and its peoples. This sense of grievance is said to run deep within the leadership of China's military and fuels the new nationalism of its officer corps. It has been reported that both America's and China's militaries see some degree of warfare as a real possibility.