While the worlds number one and number two economic powers, the US and China, meet in Washington on January 18, the rest of the world will be watching intently over a summit that will impact everybody. As many analysts have pointed out, the success of American-led globalisation has redefined the centres of power and wealth. The relative weight of old economic centres such as Europe, Japan and US is relatively declining as new ones, collectively called emerging markets, are taking centre stage in the global economy. Besides China, countries like India, Brazil, South Africa and even Saudi Arabia are gaining influence. Their collective gross domestic product (GDP) could, in just as little as 10 years, surpass the percentage of global GDP produced by the US, once the only the superpower on the planet. Since the fall of the Soviet empire two decades ago, the wave of unprecedented innovation in technology, finance and trade unleashed by the US has dramatically changed the face of the world. The combination of the Internet revolution, new frontiers of mobile telecommunications and financial instruments, and the advances in trade has spread wealth that was once concentrated only in the US and a few other developed countries. This has, first of all, made unprecedented fortunes in Wall Street, Americas financial heart. However, the spread of economic power to countries that used to be political dwarves has changed the balance of power in the world. America no longer monopolises the supremacy it once had when its only super enemy, the Soviet Union, was defeated in 1989. Presently, it sees its clout under siege by a crowd of countries whose production has been delocalised by US industry and commerce. Now those countries have grown rapidly in relatively independent economic production centres no longer fully hooked on American control. It is a time of a new world order that will need new global architecture, and one which should take into account not simply what the situation is now, but what shape it could take in a few decades, if not years. Iran wants to regain its status as a regional power, something that is bound to cause clashes or at least attrition with Saudi Arabia, a kingdom still stuck in the middle ages, or with Turkey, one of the few vibrant democracies in the Muslim world. These issues could soon become global as they stand on delicate energy reserves determining the price and the basis of trade of the world. It is impossible for the US to single-handedly control all of these issues which are now far beyond its reach. In fact, the US became bogged down at the beginning of this century, when it was at the height of its power and wealth, into two relatively minor wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. So it is most unlikely that in the future, the US could try to solve through recourse to war problems arising in Iran or Nigeria. These are much bigger countries with much bigger issues than Iraq or Afghanistan. The challenge facing US President Barack Obama now, a few days before meeting president Hu Jintao in Washington, is not simply how to deal with the new rising superpower, China, but it is how to start coping with a world in which there are too many, overly large centres of powers. It is a world where, as a 2003 book published in China claims (Xin Zhan Guo Shidai by Li Xiaoning, Qiao Liang, Wang Xiangsui, Wang Jian, Xinhua Publishing House), many states will be competing for power. In this situation, with a global fragmentation of power, diversifying agendas and priorities peppered by the rise of new extremists, there could be global conflicts or major conflicts of global relevance in many parts of the world. Wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or between Nigeria and some of its neighbours, are not impossible, as there are not impossible wars around China and India. In this situation, perhaps America has two important tasks: save itself from the present crisis and save the world from major conflicts. It is important that the US saves itself and maintains a leadership role in the world because no other country is by any means ready to take the helm of this leadership. China, presently economy number two, is not eager to take over the role of global leader with all the responsibilities this role entails, neither is Japan or any European country, all of which are very inwardly focused. Only Putins Russia would possibly have the ambition and the mindset to lead the world, but not many countries would like Russia to take this lead. At the end of the American crisis there would be an important though relative difference - its relative GDP will be smaller in global terms than it was at the beginning of the crisis in 2008. But no matter how small its relative economic weight might be, it could still be the centre of innovation and intelligence in the world, providing a standard, a point of reference, a moral guidance for all to follow. In all this, America has the immense advantage of being a country of immigrants, that is: it could import all the best talents in the world to try and provide solutions with relatively minor social tensions than countries with greater ethnic unity. America needs to import more bright foreigners who are first and foremost the students graduating in American universities and then possibly plan on importing the best minds from emerging markets - China, India, Brazil, South Africa. Those minds, once in America, on the one hand, could help Americas growth and on the other could help to link American development with the development and better understanding of their original motherland. In this way, millions of new young people coming to the United States to study and contribute to American global growth could provide an active stabilisation pattern in ties between America and those other states. This wave of international students could dramatically change the social fabric of America. But in this change, both America and the world could have a path for salvation. Moreover, the whole architecture of global institutions could be changed and also global issues of values could be reconsidered. A global process of political transparency and democratisation in the main countries could be held together, but without simple preconceptions of old stereotypes. The Chinese are changing a political system that over the past 30 years has produced one of the most dramatic and successful transformations in the world. On the other hand, many Chinese are sceptical about the democratic system in countries like India or Japan. In India, the Nehru/Gandhi family has controlled national politics for the past seventy years, while in Japan the same group of samurai who started the Meiji reformation in the middle part of the 19th century have been in power for 150 years. In China, top leaders are not selected exclusively from a tiny pool of revolutionary families. This is not to say that democracy shouldnt be advocated and expanded in China and that Indian or Japanese democracies do not provide positive examples. But for pragmatic Chinese, democracy should not be considered as an absolute value, but rather an instrument, also because the oldest and most stable institution in the West, the Holy See, is not a democracy. In this way, we have to be ready to change much of our mindset. This is the task in which America, which has revolutionarily elected its first black president, symbolically the son of its former slaves, could make a breakthrough and point the way to the new rising power, Hus China. Perhaps this is something we should expect from this summit or the times following it: revolutionary ideas for a revolutionised world. Although competition for power may increase, we do not necessarily have to move to a new period of warring states. Still, we must be very much aware that this could be a real possibility in the future. The US and China have to take the lead to defuse most of the future tensions and build mutual trust, something that could be quite difficult, given what has happened between the two countries in the past year. However, the very next step of this trust could come from China, from where a bag of mixed signals are being sent. During the recent visit by US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates China test-flew its new stealth aircraft. According to American reports Chinese top civilian leadership was unaware of the test, which took place right when Gates was meeting with President Hu Jintao. This raises many questions. Is the Peoples Liberation Army taking over control of foreign policy? Is China deliberately planning an arms race with the US despite the official policy of peaceful development? Is it simply part of the grand confusion of foreign affairs brief in China? Either signals are very worrying and would need major reconsideration by Chinas top leadership. Francesco Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa. Asia Times