China’s meteoric rise over the past four decades, to which I referred in my last article entitled “Letter from China” (the Nation, 13 March, 2018), written after my recent visits to Beijing and Shanghai, has far-reaching geopolitical implications at the regional and global levels. China, which is already the biggest economy in the world in PPP terms, will surpass the US economy in nominal dollar terms by 2030, if not earlier. In PPP terms, China’s GDP in 2017 ($23.1 trillion) accounted for 18.23 percent of the world GDP as against only 2 percent in 1980, reflecting the dramatic nature of China’s rise. The US GDP in PPP terms, on the other hand, was estimated to be $19.4 trillion or 15.31 percent of the world GDP last year.
However, the situation changes considerably if China’s GDP is compared with the combined total GDP of the US and other Western countries. Measured in PPP terms, the total GDP of the Western countries amounted to $43.5 trillion or 34.1 percent of the world total. So although China has overtaken the US economy in PPP terms, it is still far behind the total GDP of the Western countries as a whole. In nominal dollar terms, the advantage of the US and other Western countries is even greater as their combined GDP accounts for over 50 percent of the world GDP as against 11.9 percent for China. According to some estimates, in nominal terms China’s GDP even in the year 2050 would be about $ 46 trillion as against the combined total US and EU GDP of $ 65 trillion, out of which the US share would be $ 39 trillion. At that time, the GDP per capita of the US, EU, and China would be $ 88,029, $ 55763, and $ 32,486 respectively.
Several conclusions follow from the figures given above. Firstly, China is fast catching up with the US in terms of the total size of the economy. According to most projections, by 2030 China’s GDP in nominal dollar terms would be the biggest in the world followed by the US. Its increased economic power would give it correspondingly increased influence in foreign countries and in international economic forums and issues. CPEC and China’s similar investment programs in other Eurasian, African, and Latin American countries are indicators of future developments. Further, considering the increased emphasis by China on R&D and on scientific and technological progress, Beijing would increasingly rely on its own scientific discoveries and technological innovations in accelerating its economic growth rather than depending primarily on copying American advances in science and technology. Thus,
China’s autonomy in scientific and technological fields would be greatly enhanced.
Secondly, China’s fast economic growth would enable it to increase rapidly its military expenditure. China’s defense budget of $ 174 billion for 2018-19, which was approved earlier this month, reflects a 10 percent increase over the corresponding figure for the outgoing year. It is still far below the US defense budget for 2017-18 which is estimated to be $ 700 billion. But the situation is likely to change to the disadvantage of the US as China rapidly increases its military budget and the US is forced to apply brakes because of its economic constraints. According to a forecast by the weekly Economist, China’s military spending may overtake America’s by 2035. However, according to most projections, China will need at least three more decades to catch up with the American military capabilities and strength because of the enormous lead that the US has over it in terms of the quality of its military arsenal, especially in the spheres of naval and air forces. So a full blown military challenge by China to the US dominance would have to wait for some time after 2050.
The strengthening of the Chinese military muscle would gradually enhance its capability to safeguard its vital security interests in its immediate neighborhood, especially in East China Sea and South China Sea, and to project its power in other regions of the world. This development has obvious security implications for the US which has been the dominant power so far. It is not surprising, therefore, that the US is increasing significantly the presence of its forces in the Asia-Pacific region besides strengthening its alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia in pursuance of its policy of containment of China. Its rapidly developing strategic partnership with India is also calculated to serve the same purpose in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
Thirdly, China’s dramatic rise together with the rise of other centers of power will lead to shifts in alliances in the coming decades as major world powers and other countries scramble to safeguard their national interests through the formation of new alliances to counter perceived security threats from their opponents and rivals. For instance, the US decision to strengthen its strategic partnership with India to counter the expansion of China’s power and influence is pushing Islamabad into a closer relationship with Beijing because of the threat that Pakistan perceives from India even though it was a close ally of the US during the Cold War era. Similarly, the fear of the US hegemony and unilateralism is driving China and Russia into a closer strategic partnership.
Fourthly, China’s rapid rise will pose a strong challenge to the existing global political and economic order which is heavily tilted in favor of the US and other Western countries as they were its architects. As China’s economic and military power grows, it will seek to modify the rules of the existing world order to make them even-handed and to provide a fair opportunity for the accommodation of its vital national interests. On the other hand, since these rules were laid down precisely to give an advantage to the Western powers led by the US, they are likely to resist Chinese attempts to modify them. President Trump’s recent decisions to impose higher tariffs on imports from China and Washington’s known opposition to the increase of China’s influence in the World Bank and the IMF are early examples of the things to come. The prospect of growing international tensions because of the emerging US-China rivalry is, therefore, built in the current global scenario. In the current literature on international politics, this in-built tension between a ruling power and an emerging one is referred to as Thucydides’s Trap. Historically speaking, during the past five hundred years, there were sixteen cases when a rising power challenged a ruling one. Twelve of these resulted in war. Still war is not inevitable between China and the US.
The tensions between China and the US can be resolved through conflict as was mostly the practice in the past in the case of the emergence of new great powers; or through peaceful means which would involve painful compromises by the beneficiaries of the existing global order, that is, the US and other Western countries. If the past is any guide, the probability of a smooth and peaceful accommodation of China’s rise by the US-led West is rather low. The rhetoric and the policies of the Trump administration merely reinforce that conclusion. So the world is likely to witness a period of intense strife between the US and China, especially after 2050 by which time the combination of China’s economic and military power will pose a potent challenge to the US global supremacy. The Asia-Pacific region will be the main, but not the exclusive, arena for interplay of these great power conflicts.
The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.