There has been a lot of talk in the last few weeks about whether China is catching up with the US. This is a moot question. Because China already has. You see, like most things, it all depends on how you choose to measure it.
It seems to have begun with this International Security (36.3) article by Michael Beckley, in which he uses quite a few points of comparison, displayed in several nifty charts, to show that China continues to lag behind the U.S. in several social, military, and especially economic terms. Dan Drezner at Foreign Policy agrees. Erik Voeten at the Monkey Cage counters, showing that the ratio of Chinese to U.S. wealth is in fact closing toward 1, indicating that economically China is catching up (although “China ‘catching up’ does not equal China ‘taking over the world. nor does it equate a future world where Americans can expect to be catering to their Chinese overlords”).
There is little doubt in my mind that the world will be richer if the US and China cooperate with one another economically. There is also little doubt in my mind that a stronger China means a smaller share of the pie for the US. I don’t worry all that much about China being a “threat” in the layman’s sense of the word. But that’s not the only kind of “threat” worth worrying about.
The million dollar (or yuan) question then is: if China is currently on a path that would allow it to surpass the United States in the next few decades (and I stress the “if”), would the US be better off getting a smaller share of a larger pie, or should it take actions to contain China and thereby ensure that it receives a larger share of what will be a smaller pie?
I don’t know.
And neither does anyone who’s being honest.
(And don’t miss his earlier post on why using GDP/capita can be misleading.)
Again, however, the conversation relies on previous economically-centered measures of China’s power and rise. If we try a new measure, say the Composite Index of National Capabilities, a measure produced by the Correlates of War project and widely used by international relations scholars of relative coercive power, we get a different picture altogether:
That’s right: in terms of a conventional measure of relative military capability, China has already passed the U.S. In fact, they did so more than a decade ago, before the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and even before 11 September 2001.
Granted, population, both total and urban are two of the six of the variables used to calculate CINC scores; however, we know that China has lagged far behind the U.S. in military spending, but with about 50 percent more troops than the U.S., China’s infantry helps it in terms of the calculations.
So just how do the U.S. and China stack up? I would like to think Ikenberry is still right:
The key thing for U.S. leaders to remember is that it may be possible for China to overtake the United States alone, but it is much less likely that China will ever manage to overtake the Western order. In terms of economic weight, for example, China will surpass the United States as the largest state in the global system sometime around 2020. (Because of its population, China needs a level of productivity only one-fifth that of the United States to become the world’s biggest economy.) But when the economic capacity of the Western system as a whole is considered, China’s economic advances look much less significant; the Chinese economy will be much smaller than the combined economies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development far into the future. This is even truer of military might: China cannot hope to come anywhere close to total OECD military expenditures anytime soon. The capitalist democratic world is a powerful constituency for the preservation—and, indeed, extension—of the existing international order. If China intends to rise up and challenge the existing order, it has a much more daunting task than simply confronting the United States.
But with the current state of the OECD economic order, who can know?