Does China's Rise Mean U.S. Decline?

Does China's Rise Mean U.S. Decline?

China's getting wealthier, but the U.S. still leads by a wide margin. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mostviewed/3149594022/">Fab O Lens (flickr)</a>
China's getting wealthier, but the U.S. still leads by a wide margin. Photo: Fab O Lens (flickr)

For most economists, it isn't a question of if China will surpass the U.S. in terms of GDP, it's when.

Goldman Sachs estimates China will take the lead by 2027 and Standard Chartered suggests it will happen as soon as 2020, according to a recent article from the Economist.

So what does China's rise mean for the United States? Two recent articles in Foreign Policy explores what has become conventional wisdom regarding China's growing economic and military power, and turns this wisdom on it's head.

There's no doubt China has become one of the world's great powers. But American's tendency to view China’s rise as symbolic of U.S. decline and a new world order is an incorrect and even dangerous fear, argues Foreign policy contributor and Tufts University professor Daniel W. Drezner in Foreign Policy.

Exaggerating Chinese power has consequences. Inside the Beltway, attitudes about American hegemony have shifted from complacency to panic. Fearful politicians representing scared voters have an incentive to scapegoat or lash out against a rising power — to the detriment of all.

According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of Americans believe China is already the world’s top economic power, compared to 27 percent who think it’s the U.S. “That perception is completely at odds with the facts," explains a recent article in the Washington Post.

And even if China's economy does overtake that of the United States, China still has massive infrastructure and poverty challenges, explains Harvard University's Joseph S. Nye in another Foreign Policy report.

Even if China's GDP passes U.S. GDP around 2027 (as Goldman Sachs now projects), the two economies would be equivalent in size, not equal in composition. China would still face massive rural poverty and enormous inequality, and it will begin to encounter demographic problems from the delayed effects of its one-child policy. Moreover, as countries develop, there is a natural tendency for growth rates to slow.

Then why do so many Americans think China is the world’s economic leader? Drezner argues Americans are looking at the wrong metrics – total GDP being one, currency reserves being another. China’s currency reserves are the largest in the world. People assume this gives China leverage over the U.S., and let’s them dictate terms. This just isn’t true, explains Drezner, “China needs American consumers at least as much as the United States needs China to buy its debt.”

Even though China and the U.S. may need each other, Nye worries American fear could get in the way of a mutually beneficial relationship between the two superpowers.

China and the United States also have much to gain from working together. Unfortunately, faulty projections that create hubris among some Chinese and unnecessary fear of decline among some Americans could make it difficult to ensure this future.

So, what does it mean for Americans if China surpasses the U.S. as the world’s largest economy? Given the arguments made in Foreign Policy, maybe the best response is to stop worrying about it. What do you think?

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