Joseph Nye: China's Century is Not Yet Upon Us





[The writer is University Distinguished Service professor at Harvard, and author of the forthcoming book The Future of Power in the 21st Century.]

China’s current reputation for power benefits from projections about the future. Some young Chinese use these projections to demand a greater share of power now, and some Americans urge preparation for a coming conflict similar to that between Germany and Britain a century ago.

One should be sceptical about such projections. By 1900, Germany had surpassed Britain in industrial power, and the Kaiser was pursuing an adventurous foreign policy that was bound to bring about a clash with the other great powers. By contrast, China still lags far behind the US economically and militarily, and has focused its policies primarily on its region and on its economic development. While its “market Leninist” economic model (the so-called “Beijing Consensus”) provides soft power in authoritarian countries, it has the opposite effect in many democracies.

Even if Chinese gross domestic product passes that of the US in about 2030 (as Goldman Sachs projects), the two economies would be equivalent in size, but not equal in composition. China would still have a vast underdeveloped countryside and it will begin to face demographic problems from the delayed effects of its one-child policy. Moreover, as countries develop, there is a tendency for growth rates to slow. Assuming Chinese growth of 6 per cent and American growth of only 2 per cent after 2030, China would not equal the US in per capita income until sometime in the second half of the century.

Per capita income provides a measure of the sophistication of an economy. While China’s impressive growth rate combined with the size of its population will surely lead it to pass the US economy in total size, that is not the same as equality. And since the US is unlikely to be standing still during that period, China is a long way from posing the kind of challenge to America that the Kaiser’s Germany posed when it passed Britain at the start of the last century. Nonetheless, the rise of China recalls Thucydides’ warning that belief in the inevitability of conflict can become one of its main causes...

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