You’ve heard it for the past ten years – learn Chinese, for they are our new overlords.  China’s ridiculous economic miracle since 1978, with its final sprint since 2000, has made all sorts of people worry and fret that it will soon be a Chinese world.  Joss Whedon, in his Firefly series, imagined a future dominated by American and Chinese cultures.  Battlefield 4 is all about some kind of war in China.  So, do the next 100 years belong to China?  Should America just get it over with now and roll over for China?

No

All of China’s recent successes are perfect for the modern media world, which fails to note much in trends and reports only isolated incidents.  Yes, China’s had some super growth rates for quite some time.  Report after report mentions a super dam here, a mega tower there, and record manufacturing.  Taken as a string, it looks great.  But we all know the modern media world is stupid.

China has spent 30 years catching up

China's FIRST McDonald's
The next 100 years will see a rise in fat Chinese. (Photo credit: flickr.Marcus)

After World War II, Japan did the same thing.  It had a destroyed country that had to basically re-industrialize.  It did that quite well until the 1980s, when industrialization more or less finished.  Japan’s whole economic miracle was based on rebuilding what America destroyed (and being able to avoid spending any money on defense) and then copying America’s economic model to a fault.  But while America’s economy has always been very good at changing with the times, Japan’s is not.  When the world shifted in the late 1980s, Japan was left behind – and hence they’ve had two “lost decades” of almost flat economic growth.

China’s coming up to its equivalent of Japan’s crash in 1991.  China has been industrializing for 30 years and now needs a new economic model to compete.  Alas, both China’s government and China’s culture are really bad at managing change.  Like Japan, they’ll fail to be nimble enough to switch gears to take the next step past an industrial economy, and will instead stagnate. And like Japan, they’ll spend shitloads of money on highways, bullet trains, and other big infrastructure projects as a means to prop up the economy.  Mind you, nobody will need these things.  But China’s government will pump money into them nonetheless.

China’s geographic position ain’t so great, either

Gobi desert map
China’s got geography few will envy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But even at basics, China’s got some things going against it to be number 1.  First, it only has access to the Pacific Ocean.  In a war between China and the U.S., they’d be hard pressed to cut the trade routes between Europe and North America.  They have no bases outside the Pacific and seemingly no interest in expanding beyond that.  So while America can blockade China, China can’t blockade America.

Additionally, while it’s a big country with loads of natural resources (including the increasingly crucial rare earths), about half of it is awful.  Manchuria up north is cold; the Gobi Desert and western provinces nearly uninhabitable; Tibet far too high to grow crops properly.  Pleasant land is restricted to the east, making food security an issue.  A nation that cannot feed cannot lead.

The neighbors are wary, too

China has also reached its limit on its borders.  No Chinese empire has ever gotten much bigger than present China.  Think of North Korea as a Chinese vassal, and you’ve got an almost prototypical Chinese empire in modern China.

Expand in any direction, and China gets immediate push back from tough neighbors.  Russia, while declining, is still around.  South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan are American allies and well armed.  Vietnam is pluckier than it looks, having won a war with China as recently as 1979.  And India?  Christ.  Picking a fight with over a billion people is never a great idea.

Only Central Asia is soft territory for Chinese expansion, but that’s still Russian influenced, and the last thing the Chinese need to do is piss the Russians off.

China’s military can’t force project

Yes, China has a goddamn big army, with 4 million or so troops.  But they can’t swim to Japan nor fly to America.  America can bomb at will because it has a vast network of bases and advanced fighters able to reach their targets.  China has no overseas bases and far fewer fighters and bombers.

To get to that point where China can influence by bombing other countries, like America does, China must build alliances, train its soldiers, and develop its military technology.  Physics and psychology apply here.  Friendships take time, there’s only so much you can train even the best soldier in a given year, and research and development involves loads of trial and error.  In other words, China need time – decades perhaps – to put together a military capable of force projection.  Even so, they need to be equivalent to America military power to just hold the line.  To actually do what America does, they’ll have to be superior.  This too will take time.

So don’t go learning Mandarin just yet

China’s way behind and coming up to an economic cliff.  It faces basic problems the U.S. doesn’t have to worry about (when was the last time anyone used the word “famine” to apply to the United States?)  And while it’s trying to catch up, America won’t stand still.  For all of America’s overt weaknesses, its underlying – and unmentioned – strengths more than make up for it.  Stick to your English courses.  It’s still best you learn commas these days.

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