Can China take on the democratic world led by the United States and win? And if it cannot, why isn't it giving up and saving itself?

China is not the first great power to have appeared on the wrong side of history. In the last century, there were two, and both bit the dust. But in comparing the three totalitarian powers, there is more to be gained by paralleling Soviet Russia and China than dragging Nazi Germany (and imperial Japan) into the analysis.

At least up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, communism was the reigning ideology in both the USSR and China. During Nikita Khrushchev's time, China felt itself more communist than Soviet Russia, and their differences and rivalries started from there.

Those differences played up in another form when Mikhail Gorbachev messed up Soviet Russia's transition to Russia. The Chinese flat out criticized Russia's accent on glasnost (political openness) than on perestroika (economic reforms) and blamed Gorbachev for being politically feeble-minded.

China's greatest dictator after Mao, Deng Xiaoping, learnt some lessons from the Soviet collapse. He implemented it in the social contract signed with the sullen survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre. They would make no demands for political freedom. On the other hand, the Chinese communist party (CPC) would determinedly make China an economic powerhouse.

The dark side of this Faustian bargain was known to all, and especially to Deng and his successors. If China failed to become an economic powerhouse, the CPC would not be able to contain democratic unrests. It would lose its authority to rule China.

And for China to become an economic powerhouse, Deng was willing to bend ideologies to unrecognizable form. Thus he justified the so-called economic reforms as "socialism with Chinese characteristics". And he most infamously interrogated, "What matters the colour of the cat so long it catches mice?"

But to become an economic powerhouse, China needed a peaceful environment near home and good equations with the world at large. Deng mandated, therefore, that China's rise ought to be quiet and peaceful, and that there was no room for aggression in foreign and military policies. In time, great power China would become its own compelling deterrent force.

As theories go, this had merit. China did not want a second cold war to accompany its rise. Seeing the collapse of the Soviet Union, it understood it could not win the second cold war. If it lost that war, China having not the equivalent of satellite states would feel the most brunt on its central control of troublesome provinces. Tibet and Xinjiang would certainly spin out of control. The one-China policy would collapse. Hong Kong would go.

Worst of all, one-party rule would end.

Without provoking a second cold war, China had other means of expansion. For example, Pakistan was a client state that would do anything to torment and contain India. China made Pakistan a nuclear-power state. Similarly, it propped up North Korea against South Korea and Japan. It cultivated the military regime of Burma. It did deals with the worst dictators in Africa and South America. Resource extraction became its obsession.

But somewhere along the line, China felt confident to abandon Deng Xiaoping's cautious ways. The PLA became more aggressive, conducting an anti-satellite test, flying its first stealth aircraft when the US defence secretary was in Beijing, going gung ho over anti-US anti-ship weapons, speeding to become a carrier-based navy, and so on. Rivalries with India were accelerated over the contentious Sino-Indian border, and the South China Sea became a major flashpoint between China and its Asia-Pacific neighbours.

Why did China abandon Deng's stealthy-rise strategy and pick up fights with its Asian neighbours? One way to look at it is that the PLA is getting more aggressive, or that the political leadership thinks the time is right for China to show aggression. America is in decline and, therefore, why not close the gap in one giant leap?

The problem with this is that China stands on weak economic foundations at least insofar as aggressive posturing goes. China can't threaten those very countries which are amongst the biggest markets for Chinese goods. A solely exports' based economy carries risks in a situation of worldwide financial downturn. And if domestic demand is suppressed to cushion the ill-effects of growth, then it worsens the economic situation, as it has for China.

Indeed, China stares at the fearsome prospect of being unable to honour its compact with the Tiananmen Square massacre generation.

Which takes you back to Deng Xiaoping. China's real problem is that it does not have anyone the equal of Deng to control and calibrate events in the country. Next year, a grossly inexperienced and worldly unwise leadership perhaps as mediocre as the present one assumes power. It will not be able to contain the new nationalistic Chinese aggression and it will have no skills to convince the world that China wants peace.

The US decision to return to Asia is perhaps the single-most important development strategy-wise after the end of the Cold War. President Barack Obama made no bones about it, calling the US a Pacific power over and over again. This may well be the beginning of a second cold war that Deng Xiaoping was so keen to avoid.

China certainly won't be able to win this cold war. But China will have no one to blame but itself. The consequences of losing that war will be disastrous for China. But the way Chinese polity is built (opaque and uninfluenceable from outside), these are consequences that cannot be averted, reversed or minimized.