Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

Stop Obsessing About China

| Sep. 21, 2018

Why Beijing Will Not Imperil U.S. Hegemony

The United States is a deeply polarized nation, yet one view increasingly spans the partisan divide: the country is at imminent risk of being overtaken by China. Unless Washington does much more to counter the rise of its biggest rival, many argue, it may soon lose its status as the world’s leading power. According to this emerging consensus, decades of U.S. investment and diplomatic concessions have helped create a geopolitical monster. China now boasts the world’s largest economy and military, and it is using its growing might to set its own rules in East Asia, hollow out the U.S. economy, and undermine democracy around the globe. In response, many Democrats and Republicans agree, the United States must ramp up its military presence in Asia, slap tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods, and challenge China’s influence worldwide.

But this emerging consensus is wrong and the policy response misguided. China is not about to overtake the United States economically or militarily—quite to the contrary. By the most important measures of national wealth and power, China is struggling to keep up and will probably fall further behind in the coming decades. The United States is and will remain the world’s sole superpower for the foreseeable future, provided that it avoids overextending itself abroad or underinvesting at home.

The greatest risk for U.S. strategy, accordingly, lies not in doing too little but in overreacting to fears of Chinese ascent and American decline. Instead of hyping China’s rise and gearing up for a new Cold War, Washington should take more modest steps to reinforce the existing balance of power in East Asia and reinvigorate the U.S. economy. To keep the peace, U.S. leaders should seek to engage rather than alienate Beijing, safe in the knowledge that long-term geopolitical trends will favor the United States.

Measuring What Matters

The main piece of evidence typically cited for China’s supposedly inexorable rise is its large gross domestic product (GDP), along with various other statistics that are essentially sub-components of GDP, including industrial and manufacturing output; trade and financial flows; and spending on military, research and development (R&D), and infrastructure. These gross indicators, however, are terrible measures of a country’s power. As I show in a new book, they fail to track the rise and fall of great powers over the past 200 years and perform little better than a coin toss at predicting the winners and losers of international disputes and wars. 

In fact, by these very measures, China was at the top once before: in the nineteenth century, China had the world’s largest economy and the largest military. It also ran a trade surplus with other great powers. Yet many Chinese citizens today think of this era as a “century of humiliation” during which their country lost huge chunks of territory and most of its sovereign rights to smaller rivals, most notably the United Kingdom and Japan. Similarly, nineteenth-century Russia had Europe’s largest GDP and military, but it suffered a series of crushing defeats by the United Kingdom, France, and Germany that culminated in the collapse of the Russian empire in 1917. In the last century, the Soviet Union outpaced the United States by most measures of gross resources, including industrial output, military and R&D spending, and the number of troops, nuclear weapons, scientists, and engineers. It still lost the Cold War.

About This Analysis & Opinions

Stop Obsessing About China
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Beckley, Michael C.“Stop Obsessing About China.” Foreign Affairs, September 21, 2018.