Looking at today’s world, America’s relation with China is shaping up to be by far the United States’ most important foreign policy issue.
The reason: China’s seemingly unstoppable re-emergence. Its uniquely swift economic growth in the past 35 years has presented it with the ability to overtake the American economy within the next decade.
At its present rate of economic growth, China’s economy will surpass that of the United States by the early 2020s.
The prediction is that the American economy will have grown to about $ 19 trillion by 2023, while the Chinese economy will be at about $ 17 trillion, calculated at today’s dollar-renminbi (also known as yuan (¥) exchange rate.
However, the prediction also indicates that by 2023, the yuan will appreciate by about 20 percent against the dollar. At that rate of exchange, the size of China’s economy would be slightly above $20 trillion, making China’s economy the largest in the world.
This development will mean a gigantic shift of economic power from the West, especially the English-speaking part of the West, to an Asian country. But for China this shift wouldn’t be new. It would be, as I stated above, a reemergence. China used to have the world’s largest economy for most of the last 2000 years.
However, as it seems to be the case with most rising and then disintegrating civilizations, China, too, ultimately declined. By the mid-18th century, its economy and political significance had degenerated to the extent that small, faraway Britain could cause havoc in parts of this 3.7 million square mile monster. The Europeans had also surpassed the size of China’s economy.
Having the largest economy in the world, China will be in a position to project power beyond its own region. Its global reach will put it politically and militarily in a position to demand changes in the construction and functioning of the established global monetary and economic order.
China will expect the U.S. and its Western allies to respect its wish for a wider global role. This could lead the U.S. and China toward a confrontation which, if not carefully managed, could end up in war.
This enormous transformation in the global power and wealth distribution in such a short space of time, short in historical terms, will either lead to a peaceful and more affluent global community or to rivalry, tension, and war.
Which direction this change will take, would much depend on how far the Chinese will go with their demand for a broader global role and how well or hostile the U.S. will react to it.
It will all depend on how the U.S. manages its relations with the birth of another superpower that wants a place at the table with a rich and militarily superior America.
The post-World War II global political and economic order — which includes the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the dollar’s role as the global reserve currency — was mainly an American creation and a necessary outgrowth of the conditions of the time.
After the Second World War, the United States emerged as the only wealthy, functioning, industrial state that had the means and foresight to recreate an international system that could regulate the activities of a devastated and impoverished community of nations.
The construct may not have always worked perfectly. But for the past seventy years or so, it has helped the world community to grow a bit richer and work through its problems while avoiding another global conflagration.
But time moves on and things change. With the passage of time, a number of countries, among them Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — the so-called BRICS — were successful in raising their people’s standard of living to a midlevel between the poor- and the rich nations, gaining thereby enough economic weight to persuade the small club of rich states to listen to them.
Those countries and most of the poverty-stricken Third World believe that the present global system is Western-centric and does not do them justice. Especially China — which during the past 35 years carried out the almost incredible feat of elevating the size of its worldwide economic turnout from 2 percent to18 percent — is dead serious about the need for a major adjustment of the 70-year-old global order. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently spoke of a “fair and just” system.
At the moment, we don’t know what exactly Foreign Minister Wang Yi means with a fair and just system. If economic forecasters are proved right and China becomes the largest economy by the early 2020s, it is very likely that about half of global transactions will take place in the yuan. This will probably be one item where China will insist on a global role for its currency, possibly pressing the world community to accept the yuan as a second reserve currency. But that would have to go hand in hand with necessary changes at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank by elevating China’s influence and decision-making powers within those institutions.
Another matter on which China might insist upon is its influence in Southeast and Northeast Asia. It may want to see a reduced American role there, filling the void with its own presence.
But the road to the 2020s will not be effortless, and China must still face up to some major shortcomings in its overall effort to become the second superpower.
- First, by the early 2020s, China will militarily be far inferior to the United States and will have to approach its aims with care and realism. China will need internal piece and economic progress for another 30 to 40 years to reach a degree of parity with the U.S militarily.
- Second, despite its phenomenal success in growing its economy, China’s per capita GDP is only $9,150.00 versus the U.S.’s $ 57,220. Even in mid-century, when China will potentially equal America’s military might, there will still be a wide gap between the per capita GNPs of the two country in favor of the United States.
- Third and perhaps most importantly, while China’s leaders have freed their country’s economy from the shackles of communism, the Chinese government still is a one-party communist dictatorship.
Although, President Xi Jinping speaks of personal success and even wealth for the individual Chinese and Chinese families, he nevertheless seems to be firmly based in the Chinese Communist Party. Due to this dichotomy, the possibility of political collapse looms large in the country’s future.
Whether the communist leadership can successfully maintain a static political system and hold on to power while the country’s liberated economy pushes forward is a question no one seems to have the answer for.
The greatest danger that may emanate of this situation is an implosion of the state and the slide of the country into chaos. With a population of about 1.4 billion, a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons, and a huge economy, mayhem would not only destroy the country, it could also bring the world close to unmanageable disaster.
As it is important that China is watched for what it wants outside its borders, it is equally important that the United States does not overreact and refrains from considering everything and anything that China might be wanting or actually does as a hostile act against the U.S. or its allies. Having insight into such matters is important. The U.S. should avoid reactive policies and strive to act in time and with an appropriate degree of firmness.
And its reaction should come before the onset of a major crisis and not once the adversity is fully matured.
One thing that appears to me to be of vital importance for those who observe and judge China’s behavior is that China’s culture and philosophy are proponents for modesty and contentment. In contradistinction to the Russian culture of self-importance, belligerence, aggression against and subjugation of other peoples, the Chinese — while proud of their cultural, economic, and scientific achievements — have no history of conquest of other countries and suppression of other nations. With the exception of Tibet, China today rules over no foreign nations.
The psychological mindset of the Chinese — as it is widely inspired by and deeply rooted in its 3,000-year-old culture and written history — does not seem to be tempted to use its growing might to conquering other peoples.
The past 30 years witnessed the rise of the United States to global hegemony. Except for a few misjudgments, it used its power and ascendancy wisely. The next 30 years will probably witness the rise of China as a second superpower.
Much will depend on the wisdom of the United States whether this transformation in the global distribution of power and wealth will culminate in a constructive and peaceful atmosphere or in a perilous and unhappy state of affairs.
Nasir Shansab has maintained homes, business interests and dual citizenship in both the United States and Afghanistan for the past three decades.
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