In the late 19th century, something quiet but extraordinary happened. The United States surpassed the British Empire as the largest economy in the world. It would be decades before it eclipsed the mighty empire fully, but as early as 1885, when the U.S. outproduced the UK in manufacturing, the writing, as the saying goes, was on the wall.
People at the time could see as much. British politicians made the smart move, read the tea leaves, and avoided war with the United States, even though it doomed their nation-state to a secondary status. But what were those tea leaves? What did British elites see that allowed them the wisdom to avoid yet another war with America?
Much has been made about the rise of China; it’s rather stunning growth is the stuff of legend. There are those who think the 21st century belongs to Beijing; others still believe this will be another American century.
Like Britain a hundred years ago, there are tea leaves to read, geopolitical factors that, if understood correctly, will determine the top dog of the 21st century. What makes future predictions very hard is human choice; you just never can trust someone twenty years in the future to do what you expect. But geopolitics does narrow down the choices leaders can make. In the next hundred years, as China and the U.S. tussle for #1, here’s what the Chinese can do to overtake the Americans.
The wondrous cliff notes!
- China must find a way to secure its own neighborhood first and subtly push the U.S. out of East Asia without causing a nuclear war.
- It must then find a way to overcome America’s geographic advantages, with America being relatively isolated and enjoying two coastlines while dominating a continental river system.
- Through all of this, it must guarantee internal stability by spreading its wealth out further while staving off the economic slowdown that will almost certainly accompany its graying population.
- Finally, it must hope the United States itself remains disorganized, distracted, or demoralized and unable to deploy power to halt China’s rise.
First, let’s deal with some misconceptions, starting with China’s wealth.
China does indeed hold vast levels of American debt; it outproduces the United States in key industrial sectors, and its budgets are flush with cash. But that is not enough to overcome an aircraft carrier battle group. Cash alone is not power; its a representation of potential power, but vast stocks of foreign reserves are subject to forces well outside a nation-state’s control, like inflation, speculation, and recession. From the perspective of dominance, it’s better to be broke with nukes than rich without them.
Just because China throws its money around does not mean it is yet changing the scales of power. Money, used wisely, can be invested in military technologies, basing rights, and alliance systems that do change the scales; just as easily, it can be squandered on showcase towers that nobody wants to live in.
Wealth comes and goes; it does not always signify ascendence. One need only look back at the example of Japan before 1990; then, fears were that the U.S. would be totally dominated by ultra-efficient Japanese companies. Those companies – and Japan’s wealth – are still around, but since Japan never invested its windfall in military power, it has never risen to challenge the United States.
So if China is to actually overtake the United States, it must break down the pillars of American power, but it must be careful as it does so.
Until someone invents a fail-safe technology that can shoot down nukes, the U.S. and China will not fight a war. That technology is likely to come about in the next century, but until it does, the competition between the U.S. and China must remain subtle and cold; the Chinese cannot wipe out America’s Pacific Navy with a swift strike, and the U.S. cannot bomb Beijing back to the Stone Age.
That being said, even if that technology comes to the forefront, the Chinese must be very careful about picking a war with the U.S. The United States has spent a century in the Pacific building allies and crushing enemies; its position 1945 onwards is beyond peer. China, on the other hand, has historically only managed to control its nearby waters even in the best of times; Chinese forces have never invaded Japan, for instance. This is a severe disadvantage.
Thus China must find a way to crack the American Pacific alliance system without provoking it. An outright attack on an American ally will not only rouse the might of very capable powers like Japan and South Korea, but would also likely drive a lot of fence sitters into American arms (Vietnam and India come to mind).
So the first step for China’s rise must be to keep neutral powers out of any struggle, cold or hot, with the U.S.
China has serious geographic disadvantages: its vast land borders require a great deal of power projection to remain secure. For China, Russia and India are the greatest regional threats, and both have reason to press against Chinese power. India will seek further influence in the Himalayas, especially as its water needs increase with industrialization. Russia, comparatively weak as it is, will continue to hold vast resources in its Far East that it doesn’t have the people to develop; invariably, the lure of those resources will bring Chinese workers into Russian territory. That will not make Moscow comfortable.
China has been wise to avoid provoking either state; with Russia, its relations are the warmest since the 1950s; last year, the two signed a massive energy deal. But both relationships are fraught with the perils that come when near-peers sit close to one another, and the Chinese cannot dominate either nuclear state.
China’s neighborhood puts it on the back foot. Russia and India are historical rivals, and while friendly today, could change their minds. Meanwhile, Pakistan, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea are American allies, while Mongolia has been warming to the United States. The U.S. has no such threat anywhere near its home turf.
Contrast that with the American situation, where Mexico and Canada, two weak, compliant, non-nuclear states dare not challenge American power.
Should China keep the peace with the big powers of Russia and India, it must then find a way to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its East Asian allies.
Since the Korean War, the U.S. has had a formidable alliance network in the Pacific. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are all well-armed and powerful; Japan’s re-militarization is aimed squarely at China. The Philippines, while occasionally a chaotic state, is an excellent base for an American coalition. Meanwhile, Vietnam actually fought and won a war with China in 1979; once America’s foe, relations between the U.S. and Vietnam have deepened based on mutual concern over China.
This alliance system cannot be broken militarily; either that results in an “everyone’s dead” nuclear war, or its a conventional struggle the Chinese will be unable to win (Such a scenario is akin to Germany in 1939 trying to overthrow the French and British-dominated order). Instead, it must be discredited and replaced. To discredit it, the Chinese must prove the U.S. is an unreliable partner; by building its little islands in the South China Sea, it’s trying to do just that. If China takes a disputed island or sea lane and America does nothing, it will weaken the Pacific alliance system. More and more acts like that will eventually break it. But overreach could be fatal; too much aggression and the allies will close ranks.
Here the North Korean card may be of great use. North Korea’s increasingly isolated and erratic leadership barely listen to Beijing, but at least they pick up the phone. That leverage can make China into a regional good guy, holding the reins of North Korea’s rusting military. Should North Korea collapse, Beijing can be instrumental in the reconciliation and rebuilding of Korea, scoring soft power points in the region.
Such cooperation could establish small steps towards a permanent alliance system. South Korean and Chinese troops could hunt loose nukes together while Japanese and Chinese fighters patrolled overhead. In such an ideal scenario, the United States, busy elsewhere, would provide only intelligence and logistics and otherwise stay out of Korea.
Over time, by showing the U.S. can’t be trusted and that China isn’t a threat to its neighbors, China could replace the United States as the Pacific’s peacekeeper. But that will be a fine line to walk; proving America is a weak ally will require some aggression, and any such action could backfire and reinvigorate America’s alliances. That is the work of decades, not years.
And only once the American Pacific alliance system is replaced by a Chinese one can China succeed in pushing against American influence elsewhere.
Were the American alliance system collapsed or weakened to the point of irrelevance, it would surely signal the end of America’s worldwide hegemony, but it would not necessarily end America’s role in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East. Wisely, China today is building roads and factories in Africa, a continent the U.S. has very little interest in (and even fewer resources to devote to); whenever gaps appear in American power, China must surge forth.
Chinese influence in the Middle East, Africa, and even South America will be the easiest to obtain; all could benefit from Chinese industrial might and all have raw goods to export. With the U.S. trying to wash its hands of its wars in the Middle East, China could remain above the region’s violence while still securing its oil supplies; it would be a fatal mistake for China to think, as the U.S. did, that it could reorder the Middle East and dictate its political development. instead, as the Middle East rebuilds itself (probably quite violently), the Chinese must back winners, whoever they are, with no strings attached to ideology or religion.
But all this requires China’s focus, and it has considerable domestic turmoil to overcome.
China has gone through historical phases of great strength followed by unrest and weakness. That’s because nobody has yet found a governing formula for China that isn’t authoritarian and rigid; its high population and great cultural diversity require a strong hand to maintain order. From the emperors to the Politburo, this authoritarianism always breeds corruption, which corrodes the system to the point where it no longer functions. Someone then either invades or overthrows the government, setting Chinese power back decades until it’s reorganized and can reassert itself.
Today, China’s wealth gap between its growing urban middle class and its vast numbers of poor rural and migrant workers is a very real concern; only the greatest finesse can massage out that problem. This is a problem faced by the entire world, but in China’s rigid authoritarian model, it’s a mortal threat to China’s rise. Discontent with American presidents results in realigning elections, with one party tossed out and the other brought in with a mandate for change. But the Communist Party is not capable of such 180 turns. Either the Communists must get very, very lucky and be endowed with a wise leader who can mollify hardliners and provide the economic change China needs, or the current governing system will be rocked by protests, revolt, and, probably, revolution.
On top of that is the slow end of the Chinese economic miracle. China’s growth model – driven by infrastructure, exports, and fast-paced industrialization – is growing obsolete. The next stage of economic development – one related to services, technology, and creativity – is always associated with shutting down factories, shuttering manufacturing towns, and upending peoples’ expectations. In the U.S. this has left once vibrant cities like Detroit turned to weeds; will China be able to handle that kind of change with grace?
Finally, China’s one child policy will, in the middle of the 21st century, finally come home to roost. This gray bulge will hamper Chinese efforts to project power as resources are diverted towards middle aged needs; more healthcare, fewer risks. Convincing an elderly population of the need to overthrow the American hegemony will be difficult to say the least; middle age is a time of compromise and reconciliation rather than confrontation and change. That will translate into at least a bit of a brake on any headlong Chinese run to outpace the dominant superpower.
And all of this only works so long as the U.S. doesn’t reorganize and repurpose its power.
American power today is shambolically used; many Americans assume the U.S. is untouchable and therefore don’t put much thought into its geopolitical position, causing it to make mistakes. The aging Baby Boomer generation is bringing a desperate search for moral and spiritual purity into politics, making effective decisions hard and geopolitical calculation difficult. This state of affairs won’t last forever; the American republic is more than capable of political renewal, an event that is likely to happen somewhere in the 2020s.
During this time, China can surge forth and challenge the superpower led by so many hand-wringers and divided by a populace concerned more with purity than results. Americans’ general disgust with how efforts turned out in Afghanistan and Iraq are less likely than ever to support new wars, and the Baby Boomers, having come of age during the Vietnam conflict, lead that charge. This means decisive and aggressive Chinese actions now will yield dividends; hence the reason the Chinese have been happy to stir up trouble in the Pacific.
But time is not on China’s side. Once this generational dithering passes on, the U.S. will reorganize as it historically has done, most recently during the Great Depression and World War II (where the Lost Generation’s Great Gatsby values of partying and existential crises gave way to the hardheaded GI Generation of soldiers and builders). Led by new leaders empowered by new voters, this United States will be a far greater challenge to China’s rise, employing the many tools in its toolkit to block Chinese power.
With current technology, China will remain forever on the back foot, unable to break into the Atlantic Ocean or compete with America’s superior geography. But the possibility of a space arms race could change that. If China develops the first orbital weapons platforms, able to either deploy troops or bombs anywhere in the world, it would negate America’s bicoastal and worldwide alliances advantages. Suddenly Chinese force could be deployed anywhere; if well-supplied and protected, that could eclipse American power permanently. U.S. aircraft carriers, its large air force, and its network of bases would suddenly be moot against an orbital enemy.
But that technology still remains science fiction; until then, China has its work cut out for it.
China must keep its neighbors neutral, crack up the American Pacific alliance system, and avoid going to war all while balancing the needs of its 1.1 billion aging citizens. It must overcome its natural historical tendency to cycle between order and chaos, somehow reform its government to respond to 21st century needs, and survive the coming economic and social changes that are the inevitable result of development. Most of all, it must find a technological way to overcome its long borders and lack of access to the Atlantic Ocean; space is the most logical place to look. Should it accomplish all of that, and still somehow avoid antagonizing the United States and its many allies, this may well be a Chinese century. But a lot must go right for that day to come.