China Already Passed the US

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”).

Phil Arena puts the con­ver­sa­tion back into terms of secu­rity, par­tic­u­larly national security:

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?

4 thoughts on “China Already Passed the US

  1. Good point about CINC. But, as you point out, that’s largely dri­ven by pop­u­la­tion numbers.

    The CINC scores are a use­ful approx­i­ma­tion, but I’m not sure any­one thinks they are so accu­rate that they can be used to resolve debates about exactly where a state falls in the peck­ing order.

    Here’s another way to look at it — we’ve got a num­ber of stud­ies that sug­gest qual­ity ratio (milex/​milper) mat­ters. By that mea­sure, the US has got China beat by a large margin.

    The Ikenberry quote is a good one too. That jibes with what Kindred has said at IPE@UNC.

  2. Well yeah, that’s my point: they’re all approx­i­ma­tions of some­thing, and there is dan­ger in mak­ing bold state­ments (China’s catch­ing up, China’s noth­ing to be wor­ried about, the Red Army is at our doorsteps) based on any of these mea­sures. My sec­ondary point I guess though is that I’m less con­vinced by sim­ple GDP/​capita than I am by some­thing that takes a broader spec­trum of com­pet­i­tive­ness into account.

    I saw read that post as soon as I pub­lished this one. I don’t think any­one is going to be con­vinc­ing any­one of any­thing for a while on this one.

    Oh, and thanks again for reading.

  3. Nice post, JW. I agree with you on all points, although one thing I’d take away from this is that CINC is really not a good mea­sure. At least not for outliers.

  4. I think most mil­i­tary com­par­isons are moot until you fac­tor that loca­tion and trans­porta­tion of units. A broad scale inva­sion of the United States would be vir­tu­ally impos­si­ble because of our mis­sile defense sys­tem, and their lack of a func­tion­ing Navy. Unless we make the biggest mis­take of engag­ing in a land war in Asia, (only barely beat­ing out wager­ing with a Sicilian when death is on the line) their vast infantry will be picked off by our air­craft car­ri­ers and sub­marines before they could ever make land­fall.
    I also agree that, in terms of eco­nomic power, we can not be sep­a­rated from Europe and Latin America, but Neo-​​Colonialism appears to be on the rise and as of now it is China, and not the west­ern pow­ers, who are heav­ily invest­ing in Africa, South America, and the Pacific Islands. This huge source of income would give China a com­par­a­tive advan­tage, and a vir­tual monop­oly on the pre­cious min­er­als needed in todays’s society.

Your thoughts?