Why Shouldn’t China Outgrow Us?

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 9 2014 @ 10:30am

Charles Kenny reminds us not to mistake the rise of the East for the fall of the West:

What’s happening now is that the Rest are growing faster. China, the world’s most populous country, grew at an average rate of over 9 percent between 2010 and 2012. India grew at nearly 7 percent over the same period. Seven percent is more than three times our long-term growth rate. The developing world has an easier time growing fast, because we have invented a lot of technologies they can use to catch up to our levels of wealth. If they avoid tragic incompetence in policymaking, that means we should expect them to converge toward Western levels of income per person. In turn that implies the world is slowly returning to an era when economic dominance is largely a function of population—the default state for humanity for most of history, barring the industrial revolution. So we can stop blaming Washington, or Eurocrats, or kids today or wastrel boomers for the decline of the West. However annoying they surely are, they are not to blame for China getting bigger than we are. There’s one simple reason for that: China has a lot more people than the United States or Europe.

Looking at the broad span of history, Noah Smith argues that China’s global dominance isn’t assured either, precisely because it’s so large:

China has always been one of the world’s leading civilizations over the last five millennia. But it has only held both economic and military preeminence for brief periods of time—the late 1300s and 1400s being the most notable. Why has China not been preeminent for longer stretches? History is not a science, but we can make some guesses. The very thing that makes China so powerful and important–its titanic size–also endows it with fundamental weaknesses. …

Fortunately for China, this time may really be different. Modern communication and transportation technology mean that a big country is easier to defend and to integrate. Globalization, and China’s embrace of trade, mean that China is more open than it was during most of its history. But China has shown signs of worryingly isolationist instincts, harassing foreign companies operating within its borders. Meanwhile, China’s increasingly aggressive policies toward its neighbors—notably Japan and India, but also Vietnam and the Philippines—run the risk of inviting an effort at containment. The “Middle Kingdom,” like Germany in Europe a century ago, runs the risk of fighting all of its neighbors at once. In other words, China is vulnerable now for the same reason it was vulnerable in ages past. History is not a tale of Chinese preeminence, but a tale of Chinese oscillation.