October 9, 2015
What kinds of Chinese threats are of concern to Americans–military, economic, or “soft power,” the latter meaning global political and ideological influence?
If it’s all about global power, Zbigniew Brzezinski said a global power must have cutting edge superiority in “[…] global military capability, international financial and economic influence, a clear-cut technological lead, and an appealing social lifestyle—all of which must combine to create worldwide political clout” (Brzezinski, The Geostrategic Triad, 2000). While the US no longer has the unipolar superiority across all categories that it enjoyed in the 90s, it is still the strongest nation in all dimensions, when all is considered–and by a wide margin.
Yet, our relative advantage is slowly diminishing. Should this be a concern to Americans?
Is China a military threat?
Measured in spending terms, US military spending is as much as the next 7 nations combined:
If budget isn’t enough to make the case that the US is now and for a good period of years likely to be the strongest military power, consider these additional points:
- No other military has shown greater success in military engagements.
- We have friendly nations on two borders, and oceans on the other two. China and Russia have on their borders many unfriendly nations with which they have major disagreements and occasional military engagements..
- We have most of the developed world as allies. Five of the next 7 in military power are our allies.Others have few.
Is China an economic threat?
There is a similar story in economic power. In nominal terms, the US is well ahead of China. In purchasing power parity (reflecting the lower cost of goods and services in China), China now equals the US in GDP.
However, GDP per capita is another story, and is critically important. China has 1.3 billion people and we have 320 million. US per capital GDP in Purchasing Power Parity terms is $53,000 (7th in the world), and China is at $13,000. This is important, because China has such a long way to go in bringing it’s people to equivalent levels of income and standard of living. They must focus most of their resources on raising the standard of living for their people, which means less on military and everything else.And China has many other issues to address, all costing money, including water, pollution, human rights, rule of law, and others. In 2050, China is expected to well exceed the US in GDP, but it will still lag far behind in GDP per capita. Goldman Sachs forecasts the US at about $85,000 in 2050 and China at about $45,000. We are at 5X their per capita income now and will likely still be around 2X in 2050. Many more decades will likely be required for China to achieve GDP per capita equal to the US.
The US has a stronger rule of law than China, and is likely to continue to hold the reserve currency of the world for a considerable period of time. This results in a much lower cost of credit to Americans because foreign demand for our securities drive the price up and the rates down. China is benefitting the US by being the largest international buyer of our government securities.
And, as to Brzezinski’s “clear cut technological lead” requirement to be a global power, there can be no dispute. The Economist summarizes: “…in some domains America’s clout is increasing. The country has demonstrated an astonishing capacity to dominate each new generation of technology. It is now presiding over a new era based on the cloud, e-commerce, social media and the sharing economy.” (Economist Oct 3, 2015)
But the China “threat” most identified by Americans is indeed an economic threat–that low Chinese wages and Chinese government support to their companies results in jobs moving to China. This is true. Many jobs have moved to China. US jobs have also moved to Mexico, to Bangladesh, and many other low cost wage countries. But production in China is not some kind of Chinese attempt to hurt us. It’s not a conspiracy. In fact, we caused it, by being the major nation pushing for open global borders and unrestricted free trade. Americans benefit by paying $29 for a shirt which often costs $50-75 when manufactured at US wage levels. And our stock market and personal wealth increases due to Apple being allowed to sell its iPhone in China. It seems many protesting Americans forget the savings and wealth generation they have enjoyed at Walmart (which fills most of its inventory from abroad), in the stock market, and many other ways.
We can’t have it both ways. If we want the benefits of globalization, we have to accept the costs and risks. There are indeed a lot of plusses and minuses on both sides of this ledger. Since the pressures for advancing globalization do not seem reversible, we must focus on what our country can do to help those losing jobs to foreign competitors, rather than complaining about those countries hurting us. Let’s work to get displaced American workers re-trained and back in our services work force.
Is China a threat in “soft power”–global influence?
In his 2012 book, Zbiegniew Brzezinski ranked countries in terms of soft power:
Soft power is all about our influence, how we are seen by the citizens and leaders of the other nations of the world. As with military and economic power, we are also far ahead of China in soft power.
However, failed wars and the US triggered world economic crisis of 2008 have weakened how we are seen globally. And, there are other considerations that are damaging how we are seen:
- Our political structure is not working. Congress is in gridlock.
- Inequality has risen to equal that of the 1920s Robber Baron Era.
- Middle class wages have been stagnant for decades.
- Our 1% seem to be increasingly controlling our political process.
- We are pulling up the ladder, abandoning our historic roots, and can no longer honorably say, “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
- Our foreign policy and our trade policy revolve around what’s best for the US only.
- We are seen as interfering and failing to provide solutions to the humanitarian woes of the world.
- The leading contenders in our Presidential Campaign, Donald Trump and Ben Carson (and others) are totally embarrassing to anyone concerned with the real issues and who understands the reality of running our government. The Republican Party is a laughingstock globally. For example, with 1.6 Billion Muslims in the world, and Pew Research forecasting the Muslim population exceeding the Christian population by 2050, how can we be seen as world leaders, with people like Trump and Carson leading our polls?
Our advantage is weakening fastest in soft power. We need to show we care for the middle class and the poor in our own country, reduce violence, reduce discrimination, get our governance process in order, and demonstrate a concern for the rest of the world–not just militarily.
We can no longer try to lead the world alone, and that’s a good thing. We can sustain for some time as world leader, as it relates to our military and economic power. But,we are too focused on what’s good for the US only–in terms of immigration, foreign affairs and conflicts, trade negotiations and much more–and not sufficiently focused on what is best for the rest of the world. There is significant opportunity for improvement for the US in all these areas.
But equally important is a reality now beyond our control. In 1990, our GDP was 16 times that of China, and now we are equal. In 1990 China had no discernible military budget, and now has 1/3 that of the US. And other nations are rapidly advancing. We can’t have maximum advantage of globalized free trade for US companies without accepting this reality and sharing world leadership, also recognizing we have obligations to care for the welfare of those who make our products and buy our securities in China, in Mexico, in Bangladesh.
I know something about China. I have been there many times, lived there for a year, managed a business there, and have studied China with continued great interest. I find the Chinese people friendly, generous, hard working, innovative, smart, and with excellent values.
China is the nation which brought us paper, the stirrup, the blast furnace, the compass, and much more. China’s government has done a better job than ours in many respects, across the last 30 years, notwithstanding its flaws. Poverty there has been reduced from 65% of the population to less than 10%. Chinese Tu Youyou just won the Nobel Price in medicine largely based on her research into ancient Chinese medicine cures for malaria. We have so much to gain from China.
China is nowhere near being equal to the US militarily, or matching our economic power, when all is considered. Neither is China a threat to our well being or our lifestyle. I argue China is in fact a benefit to our security in the world and to our lifestyle.
With large part due to globalization which we advocate, we are moving from a unipolar world to a multi-polar world, and the next stage is likely to be primarily the US and China as key leaders, with other nations involved at slightly lesser levels. China does not want a quarrel with the US. China understands how important we are to them, and only wants to take an appropriate role at the world leadership table. We should welcome them.
The only way China can be viewed as a threat to the US would be for us to seek to jealously guard our role as unipolar world leader and work to prevent any other advancing nation from advancing and sharing in world leadership.There are some Americans who seem to want that. That is not a good plan, considering how the world is changing, largely at our behest.
Our future role will be determined by the advance of other nations, by our own behavior over the coming years, and by our willingness to welcome other advancing nations.