Step Up to the Plate, China

With Obama barely making news in China, Matthew Yglesias says the real problem is that the country is barely throwing its weight around. Plus, our gallery of the president’s trip.

11.16.09 11:00 PM ET

President Barack Obama’s trip to China comes at a time of rising American anxiety about our relative standing in the world. For the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the global power system has a clear “other” major power. And unlike the old Soviet Union, the Chinese seem to clearly be gaining on us. For years now, they’ve routinely scored eye-popping growth numbers. They’ve been stung by the same recession as the rest of the world, but though growth has slowed, it’s still positive and, in fact, quite robust.

Click the Image Below to View Our Gallery of Obama's Asia Trip

Not only do the trend lines point to China being the country of the future, in some ways the future seems to have gotten there first. Certainly anyone familiar with the difficulty of getting funding and approval for major infrastructure projects can’t help but be impressed by China. In Washington, D.C., we’re moving forward at a snail’s pace on a project to extend our Metro system out to Dulles Airport. Shanghai’s Pudong Airport is served by a mag-lev train capable of cruising at 268 miles per hour. The conventional high-speed line they’re building between Beijing and Shanghai will go 220 miles per hour—about 50 percent faster than America’s Acela Express. China remains a major polluter, but it’s making vast strides in terms of green technology. One third of the world’s solar cells are made in China (six times as what the United States does) and China is set to overtake the United States as the largest market for wind turbines.

China’s also been soaking up budget surpluses and substantially funding the U.S. budget deficit. As Helene Cooper wrote over the weekend in The New York Times, in his visit to China Obama is “in many ways, assuming the role of profligate spender coming to pay his respects to his banker.”

Under the circumstances, it may seem a bit surprising that in his remarks at Suntory Hall, Obama was reduced to exhorting China to be a “source of strength for the community of nations”—in other words, to do more of the heavy lifting on issues like non-proliferation and climate change. But the reality is that America’s biggest problem with the new kid on the block isn’t that China is throwing its weight around too much, it’s that they’re not doing it enough. In a recent report on "China’s New Engagement in the International System," my colleagues Nina Hachigian, Winny Chen, and Christopher Beddor characterize the People’s Republic as “in the ring, but punching below its weight.”

The causes of this are on one level complicated, but on another level extremely simple: China is very, very, very poor.

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Americans know this, intellectually, but find it hard to remember it while we’re busy being impressed by China’s achievements. But consider the facts, as spelled out by the CIA’s rankings of countries by their per capita GDP. Norway’s brand of oil-fueled socialism earns them $58,141 per person per year, even better than America’s $46,716. Japan pulls in $34,099. Russia is way down at $16,139. Brazil’s $10,296 is at just about the global average. And then there’s China, whose per capita GDP of $5,962 makes it somewhat poorer than not-so-mighty Namibia and quite a bit behind Jamaica or Ecuador.

China has had a lot of economic success lately, yes. But China has emerged as a great power largely because it’s so giant. The past 20 years of go-go Chinese growth proceeded from an extremely low base, and still leaves the country distinctly below average. If you split China’s billion people up into 10 or 20 separate countries, most of them would be poor, rural, agricultural and more reminiscent of Central America or southern Africa than Japan or South Korea. In other words, they’re the kind of places that would more likely present themselves as problems that need to be solved than as key architects of the solutions to the problems.

The reality is that America’s biggest problem with the new kid on the block isn’t that China is throwing its weight around too much, it’s that they’re not doing it enough.

For the foreseeable future, the United States is more likely to be troubled by a lack of strong cooperators than the presence of strong competitors. At the moment, the largest share of the world’s economy is actually in the hands of the European Union. The E.U., however, is a set of institutional arrangements that simply lacks the capacity to act in a decisive and leaderly way on the world stage. Then there’s China, which has a huge share of the world’s people, a large share of the wealthy, and an enormous slice of the dynamism, but shows little indication of interest in playing a big role on the world stage. That leaves us in a situation of hegemony by default, where we have a more preeminent global role than the underlying fundamentals really warrant. In many ways, that’s a good thing. But at times, it’s a scary thought. It’s a big world out there, after all, with a lot of problems. And even in a somewhat weakened state, there’s nobody out there besides us to take the lead in solving them.

Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.