In December 2009, the Global Language Monitor, a language-tracking company based in the U.S., declared that the “Rise of China” was the single biggest news story of that past decade. At the time, China’s GDP was barely over $5 trillion, and it had yet to overtake Japan as the world’s second-largest economy.
More than a decade on, Chinese nominal GDP stands at nearly $17 trillion. The nation has established itself as the cornerstone of almost every major global supply chain and is beginning to accumulate military capital at an eye-popping rate.
Wariness of China in Washington has gone from fringe to universal in a couple of years. For all of his repudiation of his predecessor, President Biden has largely retained Donald Trump’s rhetorical emphasis on China as an ambitious adversary (policy action, which will be discussed in more detail later, is a different story altogether). Biden has acknowledged the obvious fact that China wishes to supplant U.S. dominance and has taken pains to portray himself as a tough negotiator against Xi Jinping.
It’s not just Joe Biden or the Washington policy circuit that believes that China has, in some sense, arrived. The roasting of Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the March U.S.–China talks in Alaska is evidence that Chinese leaders have become confident, even boisterous, in their perceived position of parity with the United States. Blinken’s timid response to a humiliating sixteen-minute lecture by top Communist Party Diplomat Yang Jiechi did little to dissuade the projected image of Chinese power.
Surveys also point toward a sea change in perceptions of relative status. An October 2020 poll by Pew Research found that, even as views of China turned sharply unfavorable during the unfolding of the pandemic, a strong plurality of people in the developed world now see China as the world’s leading economic power.
Yet the 2020s will almost certainly prove to be an immensely challenging decade for the world’s most populous country. Even as it continues to grow in nominal strength, a combination of demography, overreach, and systemic economic flaws could conspire to stop China’s rise.
Against this backdrop, the Biden–Harris administration is sure to flounder in its attempts to form a coherent strategy on China. Blinken’s framing of Beijing as an all-in-one “competitor, collaborator, and adversary” has set the tone for a policy approach characterized by indecisiveness and confused priorities.
The self-defeating philosophy of America’s leaders, rather than Chinese competence, may be China’s best shot at preeminent status during this decade.
Rarely in history does any geopolitical commentator have the privilege, enjoyed by Sinologists and China watchers today, of witnessing an aspiring empire grow in real time and at such an unprecedented rate. Naturally, the question of China’s near-future trajectory has spawned endless pages of expert speculation, much of it radically divergent.
On the one hand, there is the prevailing school of thought that is broadly confident about China’s continued growth in wealth and stature. Perhaps unintuitively, this faction is deeply divided in terms of actual warmth toward China or its ruling regime: it encompasses relatively pro-China academics and sources such as Kishore Mahbubani and Martin Jacques, staid China Watch journals like the Economist and the Diplomat, and American patriots like Tucker Carlson and Robert Spalding, who have built followings for sounding the alarm every other day on the Communist Party’s machinations.
The otherwise irreconcilable members of this camp are united by a general acceptance of the mainstream view that China has achieved or nearly achieved peer competitor status with the U.S., that it is becoming stronger still, and that it will soon bring down or radically reshape the U.S.-led global order of the post–Cold War period, barring a massive blunder or a change in U.S. posture.
This China-bullish view is the predominant one in American discourse, and for good reason: it seems to be the best interpretation of the best indicators. GDP growth, military capital growth, and infrastructure investment are among the key metrics in which China has either surpassed the U.S. or is on track to do so within the next decade.
Projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative and Made in China 2025, though more like branding exercises than truly coherent grand strategies, have managed to wow many foreign observers. The country is also making strides in innovation and research, an area that has traditionally been considered its Achilles heel. After controlling for the huge numbers of fraudulent or junk Chinese scientific papers, the Nature Index found that by 2020, China had achieved top-quality research output equivalent to about 70 percent of the U.S.’s own output, placing it well ahead of third-place Germany.
Given these datapoints, as well as the prevalence of China-bullish dogma across the political spectrum, contrarian voices are hard to find.
Nonetheless, they do exist. These China bears — we’ll call them “Sinoskeptics” — believe that Chinese power is overhyped and unsustainable or even outright illusionary.
The most (in)famous Sinoskeptic is, without a doubt, lawyer and author Gordon Chang. He is best known for his 2001 book The Coming Collapse of China, which argues that a combination of bad debt and the shock of foreign competition (China was then on the verge of becoming a member of the World Trade Organization) would cause the country and its regime to implode within ten years.
The book raised many interesting criticisms of the weaknesses of China’s economic model, and some of its key points — particularly regarding debt and inefficient state enterprises — are still in play today. Of course, it also utterly failed in its prediction of a collapse. When 2011 came and went without a Chinese implosion accompanying it, Chang wrote a follow-up article asserting that the much-anticipated collapse would occur in 2012. Although that deadline also expired uneventfully, Chang has remained a Sinoskeptic, albeit one who is noticeably less enthusiastic about providing exact dates.
Chang’s diminished credibility has opened the way for many other writers to take on the collapsitarianist mantle. The most high-profile of these is probably Peter Zeihan. A former vice president of the leading geopolitical research group Stratfor, Zeihan has written three books that collectively argue that the world’s countries (and especially China) are entirely at the mercy of American foreign policy.
In his first and best-known work, The Accidental Superpower (2014), Zeihan makes the case that the “long peace” of the post–Second World War period is an aberration that persists exclusively because of America’s combination of naval supremacy and internationalist foreign policy. China, too, is an aberration; it is a unified nation and not a bunch of squabbling kingdoms (supposedly its natural state) only because America chooses to actively keep it together.
Zeihan points to China’s rapidly aging population, its challenging geography, and its dependence on massive food and energy imports as the country’s insurmountable weaknesses. Should the U.S. ever decide to stop protecting the world’s sea lanes, Zeihan predicts the immediate return of interstate and nonstate piracy, the collapse of the global system, the subsequent drying up of the imports that China needs to survive, and therefore the inevitable collapse of China as a unified polity.
The U.S., on the other hand, is going to be just fine in Zeihan’s model. Indeed, he expects it to be the only great power (not just superpower) left by 2030. His follow-up books The Absent Superpower (2016) and Disunited Nations (2020) stress that the U.S.’s effective energy independence as of the late 2010s has eliminated the last reason that American policymakers had to engage with the rest of the world.
Zeihan predicts that the U.S., with its abundant natural resources, the world’s best farmland, a near-perfect navigable river network in the form of the Mississippi River System, and two oceans to protect it from any outside threat, will retreat into isolationism beginning in this decade, dooming almost every other country.
Though certainly exhilarating, Zeihan’s model has its share of flaws. For instance, a proclivity toward geographical determinism frequently blinds him to the decisive, and growing, role of technology. The fact that China possesses a fifth of the world’s population but only about 10 percent of its arable land — historically a primary cause of cycles of civil conflict and famine — looks like less of a problem once advanced greenhouse and vertical farming technologies are factored in.
Specific arguments aside, the greatest shadow over Zeihan’s credibility has been his own minor case of Gordon Chang Syndrome. While working for Stratfor, Zeihan co-authored the group’s 2005 and 2010 decade forecasts, in both cases predicting that China would suffer a Japan-style economic meltdown and collapse by 2015 at the latest. In 2011, he followed up with a talk in which he claimed that the Chinese system would only last for another “three to five years.”
At the beginning of last year, Zeihan asserted a new deadline of 2030 for China’s collapse; four months later, he wrote a newsletter titled “The Beginning of the End of China,” in which he predicted that the pandemic-driven depression of Chinese exports would continue (in fact, exports and GDP growth rebounded almost immediately.)
But though the resilience of the Chinese economy has so far defied the likes of Chang and Zeihan, the Communist Party can only put off the structural flaws that they point to for so long. In particular, China’s addiction to debt-fueled growth combined with its approaching demographic problem may culminate in a period of Japan-style forced deleveraging and stagnation sometime in the next two decades. An outright collapse is possible, but implausible — though putting it that way is unlikely to sell many books.
The fact of China’s current middling per-capita wealth, together with its expected future problems, suggests that it is in fact unlikely to pose a serious threat to America’s superpower status in the decades to come.
Among the authors who predict continued American hegemony is the great power competition expert Michael Beckley. His 2018 book Unrivaled argues forcefully that China’s economic clout is largely illusory and that its perception in the American press is a consequence of overemphasis on the wrong metrics. It was released to a lot less fanfare than any of Zeihan’s works, but it has received steady play in the press, including a recent review by David Frum of the Atlantic.
True clout comes not from gross output but net output, Beckley argues. A country with twice as many citizens who produce half as much per person as its rival is not equally as powerful, since the burden of feeding, pensioning, educating, surveilling, and policing all those extra people cuts into net output and makes retaining and concentrating wealth much more difficult.
Consequently, the top-line figure that forms the staple of almost all commentary on Chinese growth — the country’s GDP — is misleading. Beckley proposes a formula to replace it as a measure of national power: GDP multiplied by GDP per capita, adjusted for purchasing power. As of 2021, this metric suggests that China’s net economic clout, far from being on par with the U.S., is only about one-third its size.
The formula is nowhere near perfect, of course; it seems a bit arbitrary, and Beckley himself concedes that it is a “primitive proxy.” Still, it is a good first effort to capture the fact, played out repeatedly throughout history, that large and poor states often lose to small and wealthy ones.
An appropriate example of this phenomenon is the First Sino-Japanese War, which ended with the humiliated Qing Empire ceding both Korea and Taiwan to Japan. Going by GDP alone, the Qing should have been almost twice as strong as Japan. But Beckley’s formula suggests that Japan entered the war with a three-to-one net economic power advantage over the Qing — roughly the same advantage that the U.S. enjoys today.
Based on projections of future GDP and population numbers by the International Monetary Fund and the UN, China might peak at half of America’s net economic power by the middle of this century, after which its declining population will cause the gap to widen again. If Beckley’s model is even approximately true, then China will never represent a great power threat comparable to even the crumbling final years of the Soviet Union.
The central question of the twenty-first century will not be whether America will have its hegemonic status forcefully taken from it. Rather, it will be whether America will voluntarily relinquish its status through folly, exhaustion, or self-loathing.
In a 2019 interview discussing his book, Beckley states that “internal decay” may erode U.S. power independently of any changes in the international situation. Possible eroders include “partisan divisions,” “special interests,” rising “cultural tensions,” and the decline of social mobility.
With the Biden administration in power and ideologues firmly entrenched in every major American corporation and institution, expect to see ever more decay around you. Indeed, America’s elite seem to be doing their best to throw in the towel against China.
How could this happen, and why? Woke politics has emerged from the fringes to become the best example of American institutional decay in the past five years. A few of its consequences are military recruitment ads focusing on LGBTQ causes instead of national defense, loosened entry requirements at colleges, restricted access to advanced classes in the name of equity, proposals for defunding the police, and political censorship at leading scientific journals, among countless other examples.
It is difficult to gauge how much material damage is being caused to America by the wokeification of everything. Nonetheless, the above examples serve to showcase the utterly self-defeating mindset of the liberal elite: they no longer want to win. They’re focused elsewhere, on internal crises often of their own devising. The armed forces, police, schools, corporations, science, and the family unit are all sacrifices to the undefined and insatiable goal of “equity.”
China’s leaders know that America’s current ideological fervor is self-defeating. That’s why they’re funding it: CCP-aligned groups in the U.S., such as the Chinese Progressive Association, help to fundraise for Black Lives Matter.
“Self-defeating” is also a suitable descriptor for the Biden administration’s policy agenda, much of which is ostensibly geared toward outcompeting China.
As discussed above, one of the United States’s primary assets in the twenty-first century will be its phenomenal fossil fuel reserves. In contrast, one of China’s Achilles heels will be its dependence on energy imports. Knowing this dynamic, a capable strategist would want to play into America’s strength, maintaining a self-sufficient fossil fuel economy while pulling back from guaranteeing the supply lines on which China relies.
Instead, the Biden administration has committed to assisting China’s “clean energy” strategy by mandating a shift away from fossil fuels and toward electric vehicles and wind and solar energy sources. This plays into China’s strength: the country dominates the clean energy supply chain and would directly or indirectly profit from American purchases. American investment in the advancement of green energy technology would also accelerate Beijing’s plans of ending its reliance on oil inputs through pivoting to coal and renewables.
One of the claims Peter Zeihan makes in The Accidental Superpower is that China is due to split along provincial lines as popular faith in the government erodes and the Han super-ethnicity begins to break back down into its constituent sub-ethnicities. In truth, however, it appears that nationalistic fervor has only increased in the wake of the pandemic.
The racial and political divides that Zeihan anticipated in China seem increasingly applicable to America instead. At the very least, those in power are doing their best to sow division and strife along racial, sexual, and political lines.
The Democratic Party is doing all that it can to fan these partisan tensions. After a year of Black Lives Matter–supported rioting while Democrats looked the other way, Biden’s Justice Department is moving to label Trump supporters as “domestic terrorists.” This intensification of mutual suspicion can only hurt the country.
Truth be told, America will probably dominate the twenty-first century regardless of any blunders, bad legislation, military misadventures, or Chinese aggression. Its wealth is enormous, its geographical assets are unmatched, and it is home to some of the most ingenious and enterprising people in the world.
But none of this will matter if the U.S. becomes unrecognizable — if it devolves into tyranny or a bunch of irreconcilable tribes. The question of the Second Cold War is therefore not whether America can win, but whether it wants to.