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Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

China will not dominate the current century, thanks to internal demographic shifts coupled with the need for political reform.

Given the breakneck speed of the country's economic growth and sheer size of its population, this pronouncement might sound like the opinion of an idealistic American in denial at his country's inevitable loss of influence on the world stage. But when it comes from Henry Kissinger -- arguably the most pragmatic United States diplomat of the last century -- the argument carries enormous weight.

Mr. Kissinger was taking part in the Munk Debates, where a panel of four debated whether or not the 21st century will belong to the world's most populous country. Journalist and author Fareed Zakaria backed Mr. Kissinger; arguing against them were historian Niall Ferguson and David Li, a Chinese academic and adviser on monetary policy for the country's central bank.

Mr. Kissinger's position is also significant, given the role he played in opening China up to the western world in the 1970s, a process that ultimately kick-started its rise. Tuesday was also, surprisingly, the first time the 88-year-old had ever taken part in a public debate.

"China will be preoccupied with economic problems internally, problems domestically, with its international environment and I have enormous difficulty imagining a world dominated by China," Mr. Kissinger said. "I believe the concept that some country will dominate the world is a misunderstanding of the world in which we live."

The country must create millions of jobs every year, millions of workers leave the countryside to live in the city, while many more migrate back and forth, Mr. Kissinger said, significant challenges for China. He also pointed to some measures that suggest the country will, in 30 years, have only two working-age people for every pensioner.

The country must also wrestle with internal politics, both Mr. Kissinger and Mr. Zakaria argued, and it's not entirely clear what its system of government will look like in the future.

"The next decade will see China trying to bring its political institutions in line with its economic change," Mr. Kissinger said. "I do not believe that a country that will be so preoccupied with this fundamental change will also have the time to dominate the world."

Mr. Ferguson, meanwhile, pointed to China's long history to make his case.

"I believe the 21st century will belong to China because most centuries have belonged to China," Mr. Ferguson said. "The 19th and 20th centuries were the exception."

He also argued the crisis in the Eurozone and the heavy U.S. debt were signs of western decline and complacency, which would play into China's hands. He roundly rejected the binary of parliamentary democracy competing with dictatorship, suggesting other political systems -- including Singapore's authoritarian democracy -- could be the way of the future for China.

Mr. Li and Mr. Zakaria added somewhat more sociological arguments on either side of the debate. Mr. Li argued the energy of China's population and the humiliation of being outdone by the west in the early 20th century would push the country to greater heights.

Mr. Zakaria, meanwhile, said that western democracy, by encouraging people to challenge the status quo, would allow the west to continue to innovate. He also argued that China's neighbours, no fans of its rising assertiveness, would also help to contain the country's rise.

Mr. Kissinger invoked a similar idea, and one that fit neatly with the overriding theme of his diplomatic career, arguing that a balance of power must be used to deal with China and regulate international relations in the future.

"We can draw lines," he said, referring to the world's ability to check Chinese geopolitical hegemony in East Asia. "But we have to be selective in where we draw the lines."

To find out which side won the debate go to