Why China Won’t Eclipse the United States

The World Bank has predicted that China’s economy will overtake America’s this year. Are we at the cusp of a Pax Sinica?

Colin Nixon/Getty

The World Bank’s recent projection that China’s economy will overtake America’s in absolute terms this year has strengthened the judgment that a “power transition” is underway between the two countries. Whether or not one agrees with this forecast, China’s share of gross world product is indisputably increasing. And in a growing number of categories that affect a country’s standing in the world—such as shares of global consumption, manufacturing, foreign-exchange reserves, trade, and military expenditures—China is either No. 1 or set to be No. 1.

But headline-grabbing metrics such as these do not capture the full complexity of “power”: economic power has many dimensions besides GDP, just as military power has many dimensions besides absolute spending. And how does one take stock of one’s alliances? Or one’s “soft power”? While most observers would agree that the gap between U.S. and Chinese “comprehensive national power” (a Chinese term and, it would appear, preoccupation) is diminishing, there is nothing approaching a consensus—among scholars or policymakers—on how it should be defined, measured, or calculated. In the new issue of Survival, the German Marshall Fund’s Dhruva Jaishankar notes that “a crude and imprecise conception of power” remains “a crucial analytical shortcoming in the field of international relations.”

Making matters more complicated, power is different from influence (strategy would be less important if the former automatically yielded the latter). I might have more power than you, but if you wield it more effectively you might exercise more influence in certain settings. The trouble is that influence is even more complicated to gauge than power: If two countries with roughly equivalent power (the analytic difficulty of the previous paragraph having been conveniently resolved) have different vital national interests and strategic objectives, how is one to compare their influence?

If it is hard to measure power and harder to measure influence, how will observers be able to tell if and when China has eclipsed the U.S. as the world’s superpower? Peter Harris, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government at the University of Texas, Austin, considered this question in a thoughtful essay in late April:

[A]ssuming a peaceful power transition between China and the United States, there will be no flashpoint moment at which it becomes clear that a Pax Sinica has replaced today’s Pax Americana…It will occur at different times and at varying rates across region and issue-area…The United States may actually underpin Chinese designs for East Asia and the rest of the world for decades to come.

Back up a bit, though: What if a power transition does not, in fact, occur between the U.S. and China? Whether violent or peaceful, power transitions of centuries past have resulted in the displacement of established powers by rising ones. But relative U.S. decline does not guarantee such an outcome.

First, China faces enormous internal challenges. Last month’s terrorist attacks in a busy street market in Xinjiang—which killed 43 and wounded over 90—underscore the growing problem of containing violent Uighur separatism. China also plans to absorb 250 million people—roughly four-fifths of the U.S. population—into urban areas by 2025, an undertaking that will compound the resource shortages and various forms of pollution with which its cities are grappling. It is tasked with mitigating environmental destruction brought on by three and a half decades of torrid growth. While air pollution tends to capture the headlines, water pollution is arguably a more serious issue: The Financial Times notes that “half of China’s rivers are contaminated,” “three-fifths of groundwater is unsuitable for drinking,” and “nearly 20 percent of arable land [is] contaminated.”

China also faces a raft of demographic problems. For starters, its working-age population is shrinking while its elderly population is exploding: “By 2055,” according to a recent article, “China’s elderly population will exceed the elderly population of all of North America, Europe, and Japan combined.” A less-discussed, but related, problem is the country’s sex-ratio imbalance: in her new book Leftover Women, Leta Hong Fincher reports that there were nearly 118 boys for every 100 girls in China in 2012, a gap that the Chinese People's Daily warns could further decrease the ratio between its working-age and elderly populations and foment “social instability and insecurity.”

Still within the realm of internal challenges, China is trying to switch to a more consumption-oriented growth model, even though its powerful state-owned enterprises have a stake in opposing that transition. Last but certainly not least: The Chinese leadership seeks to preserve the authority of the Communist Party as a growing middle class finds its voice and information technology becomes more pervasive.

China’s external difficulties are also formidable. While it has a growing number of economic partners, it has few reliable allies. To satiate its burgeoning appetite for vital commodities, China will have to strengthen its footholds in an ever-growing number of countries, many of which (Burma, Libya, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, for example) are highly unstable. Despite its commitment to achieving a “peaceful rise,” its neighbors are far warier of its regional pretensions than they were when Chinese grand strategist Zheng Bijian outlined that strategy in Foreign Affairs in Fall 2005. It is telling that Vietnam and the Philippines, despite their small physical size (the former is 29 times smaller than China; the latter, 32 times) and growing dependence on China’s economy, have jointly and publicly challenged its maritime claims and actions. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung stated that they are “determined to oppose China’s violations and call on countries and the international community to continue strongly condemning China and demanding China to immediately end the above said violations.”

Perhaps most importantly, while China may be chipping away at certain aspects of today’s liberal international system, it has little interest in mounting a wholesale revisionist challenge. Having closely studied the German and Soviet experiences during the 20th century, China recognizes the futility of such undertakings.

Given China’s internal challenges, external challenges, and reluctance to challenge the postwar order systemically, a power transition whereby China replaces the U.S. as the world’s preeminent power may not be a fait accompli. Financial Times columnist Ed Luce concludes that “[a]fter America comes multipolarity—not China. The question is, what type? Will it be based on a system of U.S.-framed global rules? Or will it be ‘après moi, le déluge?” A tense, dynamic equilibrium between the U.S. and China seems more likely than a clear displacement of the former by the latter.

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There is at least one other reason why “power transition” seems like an inapt way to characterize the dynamic between the two countries: psychology. (It is hypocritical of me to criticize the term since I used it—in the manner in which it is typically employed—as recently as this January. It is only lately, though, largely thanks to Harris and Luce’s pieces, that I have started having second thoughts about its usefulness.) Much analysis takes for granted that the U.S. seeks to preserve its status as the linchpin of the international system, having been the world’s preeminent power for the past seven decades; and similarly takes for granted that China, believing that the post-Industrial Revolution period deviates from historical patterns, seeks to resume its position as the Middle Kingdom in the Asia-Pacific and, in time, overtake the U.S.

While this analysis may be true, there are other, sometimes conflicting, assessments that inform the two countries’ feelings about each other’s positions in the international system. Given protracted economic weakness in the U.S., it is becoming costlier and less palatable to the American public for the U.S. to anchor that system. There are also few, if any, global challenges on which meaningful headway can be made without robust U.S.-Chinese ties. The U.S. has a strong stake, then, in China’s becoming a more willing and capable partner. But that desire comes with a concern: What if a more capable China begins to pose more fundamental challenges to the postwar assumptions and arrangements with which the U.S. is comfortable?

As for China, while it embraces growing multipolarity as a corrective to Western predominance, it is reluctant to undertake the responsibilities that are likely to be conferred upon it as the gap between its power and that of the U.S. continues to narrow—reluctance that goes some way to explaining why it consistently minimizes the economic milestones it achieves. Counterintuitively, China also fears the possibility of rapid U.S. decline. While it is trying to move toward a more consumption-based economic model, as noted earlier, its economy still depends heavily on America’s (the U.S. absorbs a larger share of Chinese exports than any other country). With its dependence on foreign oil and gas set to grow sharply in the decades to come, it also needs the U.S. to safeguard the maritime commons through which that energy flows.

The U.S.-China relationship—the world’s most complex and consequential—defies simple characterizations. Sometimes its more competitive dynamics prevail; other times its more cooperative ones do. While it is unclear where ties between the two giants are going, and even less clear what the end state looks like, it may be time to find a term besides “power transition” to understand the China challenge.

Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a coauthor of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (2013).