Judging by the past three decades, there’s no worse fate than getting touted as the next global superpower.
The Japan of the 1980s did not end up owning the United States; it wallows in a never-ending “lost decade.” The European Union of the 1990s didn’t end up becoming a significant, unified force on the world stage; it will be lucky to hold together its currency. As Chinese President Hu Jintao visits Washington, his country has stepped into the well-worn role of the emerging power that provokes exaggerated fear and misplaced envy.
China is rising only because it partially adopted our economic system and plugged into the international markets we built and sustain. Without the economic liberalization that began 30 years ago, Chinese rulers — enlightened or not — would still sit atop a vast expanse of misery.
If China has come far, it started from the absolute dregs of totalitarian socialism. In 1978, GDP per capita was $240. It is more than 10 times that now. But that still leaves it between Albania and Angola in the world rankings. Its middle class remains a slice of the population in a country with enough desperately poor people to fill up Bangladesh several times over.
Partly as a matter of sheer size, China has bypassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. This hardly makes it a dire economic threat, even if ignorant or demagogic American politicians insist on portraying it as such.
China hasn’t ruined U.S. manufacturing. As Kevin Williamson, the author of the engaging “Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism,” notes, we make more stuff than we did in the 1950s; we just do it more efficiently, so it requires fewer workers. China isn’t our evil banker. It owns about 11 percent of our foreign-held debt, a little more than Japan. It isn’t an unstoppable green-energy powerhouse. In 2009, coal-dependent China emitted 50 percent more greenhouse gases than the U.S., even though its economy is only one-third as large.
Reviving the U.S. economy has little to do with China. If we don’t reduce our debt, and don’t adopt policies that spur savings, investment and innovation, China could let Timothy Geithner single-handedly determine the value of its currency, and we’d still languish.
None of this means that China isn’t a major worry. It feels that it is finally taking its rightful place among nations and deserves to project its power out into the Western Pacific. It considers American-style liberalism a threat to its government and perhaps its national existence. This makes it an ambitious, bristling power with the disruptive potential of 19th-century Germany.
The Obama administration came into office believing that China only needed more coddling. Two years of Chinese provocations in the region exploded this naiveté. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech on the cusp of Hu’s visit that reflected a new realism. She rejected out of hand a world run by a “G-2” of the United States and China (an idea floated when President Barack Obama first took office), and referred to the U.S. and China as “competitors.” She pointedly related how the U.S. has worked to strengthen alliances with Asian countries that happen to be essential to containing China.
Clinton’s speech is a step toward what our domestic debate so desperately needs — a China without illusions.
Lowry is editor of the National Review.