There is concern among many Americans that China will eventually—some think inevitably— knock the United States off of its perch as the world’s lone superpower. We see China’s economy booming while the American economy is still struggling through quasi-recessionary conditions. We see China’s spending on its military increasing by more than ten percent every year while America’s military expenditures are being cut, cut, and then cut again. We see China becoming one of the principle lenders bankrolling America’s ever-increasing national debt. Finally, it seems that every other item Americans purchase was made in China.
There is no question that Americans should be appropriately concerned about China and its intentions vis-à-vis the United States. I am certainly one of those concerned about the emergence of China. However, according to futurist George Friedman—author of The Next 100 Years—if we take the long view the China threat is over-rated. Consequently, it is important to put the issue of China’s potential for gaining superpower status in proper perspective. Friedman believes that China is a paper tiger that, in the long run, will turn out to be a flash in the pan. He gives three reasons for this view. Friedman does not deny China’s intentions in terms of global hegemony, but claims that intentions are one thing while turning them into reality is another.
Friedman’s approach to analyzing countries for growth potential is based on a variety of geopolitical factors. One of these factors is geography. According to Friedman, geography works against China and, in the long run, will limit its ability to grow, develop, and strengthen. He says it this way in his book The Next 100 Years: “When you look at a map of China closely, you see that it is really a very isolated country physically. With Siberia in the north, the Himalayas and jungles to the south, and most of China’s population in the eastern part of the country, the Chinese aren’t going to easily expand.” This contrasts with the almost unlimited potential for development of America’s midlands. If you fly from the east coast of the United States to the west coast, you fly over thousands of miles of open plains and some of the most fertile, productive farmland in the world. The images of China made available to the rest of the world are of booming industrial cities, and China certainly has some of those. However, closer scrutiny shows China’s prosperity is a regional phenomenon limited primarily to it coastal areas. What the world does not see is that two-thirds of China is an undeveloped third-world country that is not well-situated for development and that most of China’s population still lives in debilitating poverty.
Friedman’s second reason for claiming that fears concerning China’s emergence are premature has to do with its comparatively anemic navy. According to Friedman, “China has not been a major naval power for centuries, and building a navy requires a long time not only to build ships but to create well-trained and experienced sailors.” With Friedman’s approach to analyzing the potential of countries, a nation cannot become a legitimate superpower without a navy that is capable of projecting its power worldwide and controlling the seas lanes. According to Friedman, the United States controls every ocean on the globe while China controls no oceans and is not capable of doing so. There is no question that China is building a navy in an attempt to exert more influence in its region, but even with substantial growth China’s navy will be to the U.S. Navy what America’s navy was to Great Britain during the War of 1812. Further, China’s access to the oceans of the world is limited while the United States borders on both the Atlantic and the Pacific, the two most important oceans in the world. Friedman questions whether a nation can be an international superpower without controlling the Atlantic and the Pacific, both of which are firmly and resolutely controlled by the United States navy.
Friedman’s third reason for downplaying the concerns of Americans about China’s global designs has to do with the country’s inherent instability. Friedman posits that when China opened its borders to the outside world, its coastal region became prosperous, “but the vast majority of Chinese in the interior remain impoverished. This leads to tension, conflict, and instability. It also leads to economic decisions made for political reasons, resulting in inefficiency and corruption.” Add to China’s inherent instability the added measure of tension that will be introduced when China finally loses the battle to deny its citizens unfettered access to the Internet. It will be hard to convince the Chinese that they live in a socialist paradise when they have on-line access to the truth.
Another factor to consider is that China’s booming factories depend almost entirely on access to American markets and on the continued ability to pay slave wages for labor. As its new found wealth begins to take effect, China will be in the same boat as other industrialized nations in that labor costs will inevitably rise to less competitive levels. The Chinese economy is in essence built on the American economy. Consequently, if the American economy suffers, the Chinese economy suffers even worse. In other words, if America’s economy sneezes, China’s economy catches a cold.
Much of the concern of Americans about China has to do with the amount of debt owed by our government to China. This is always a legitimate concern. However, while it is true that the United States is becoming a debtor nation to China, China is like a bank that has loaned all of its money to just one big customer. If that customer fails the bank fails. Hence, China has as much interest in America’s economy prospering as Americans do.
What Friedman has shown in his intriguing book is that China cannot overtake the United States economically or militarily of its own volition. However, even as I am reassured by his perspective on the China threat I find it difficult to completely put aside my fears. Why? Because even though geopolitical factors may prevent China from knocking the United States off of its perch through its own initiative, nothing says we cannot self-destruct through a series of self-inflicted wounds. Those potential self-inflicted wounds include: 1) unlimited government that becomes so big and so regulatory that it puts the American economy at a competitive disadvantage, 2) taxation that becomes so high it shuts down economic growth and technological innovation, 3) insufficient attention to the threat of cyber warfare, 4) a public education system that produces semi-literate, easily manipulated sheep unprepared for college, the workplace, or to be productive, contributing citizens, 5) a higher education system that turns out a glut of graduates in fields that contribute nothing to America’s competitive standing while failing to provide a sufficient number of STEM graduates, and 6) a growing entitlement mentality that is the opposite of the hungry, driven, positive work ethic needed to outperform Chinese workers. Having read Mr. Friedman’s excellent book, I feel a little better about the China threat but I am not yet ready to ignore it. The current propensity in Washington, D.C. for self-destructive policies and decisions won’t allow it.