According to Abu-Lughod, China had everything it needed to become a world empire at the beginning of the 15th century: economy, manpower, technology... What happened? It simply didn't have the will for several reasons. While the merchants were very successful and had a great degree of control over trade, they did not have an intimate relationship with the ruling Chinese elite and thus did not have the governmental power to initiate a total take over. Chinese Confuscianist spirituality and philosophy, furthermore, did not support the entrepreneur mentality and the "real" China was at the time attempting to distance itself from the trade/commerce-centered Mongol Empire. Even if China did muster the will to further and sustain its power as a core empire, perhaps it still wouldn't have occured because external factors such as the Black Death and collapse of other economic sub-systems contributed to its own commercial meltdown, which then could not fund military power.
This power vacuum provided Western powers with the opportunity to step up for the core position. While the British Empire took advantage of this and became the single hegemonic core during the Victorian era, changes were taking place in the later 19th and early 20th centuries -- everything boomed. Population began to soar, technology, industrialization was rapidly progressing, which led to faster communication, travel, and production. Everything and one is suddenly much "closer" and better known. Global economy exists with increasing activity while the rich continue to distance themselves from the poor. Many countries in Europe were now getting a hand in the pot and with the same mentality as the British: governments were now very much involved with economic activity -- they were driving it with the realization the economic power meant political power.
Unlike the rest of the world, Europe was highly literate and increasingly urban. As colonialism continued to develop and spread, it came to be viewed as nations' rights to do so. They viewed themselves as superior to their invaded nations, even seeing it as their obligation to civilized primitive peoples (while stripping their lands of resources and forcing the people to contribute their labor.)
One of the things that particularly interested me was that between 1750 and 1800 the per capita gross national product of first world nations was not substantially different from that of what are now considered third world nations. Somehow I was I've had the impression that "third world" countries were even at that time less economically sound than those of "first world." How did the West become so morally corrupt? Why did the Confuciast way of thinking not spread to the West? How would our current world system be different if it had?