During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the U.S. consistently overestimated the Soviet regime’s abilities and underestimated its threat.
We now face a similar moment concerning the communist regime in China, which, without a doubt, seeks to replace the U.S. as the global hegemon and reduce it to a second-tier power.
To address this threat, we must discern China’s intentions (which are clear) and abilities (which are less well-understood by most Americans). We must also recognize that Americans have a history of overestimating our rivals and underestimating America’s ability to rise to the occasion.
As difficult as it may be to imagine now, in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in the wake of Sputnik and (later) Vietnam, many people thought — with some cursory justification — that the Soviet Union was going to overtake the U.S. and emerge from the generational contest victorious. Happily, they turned out to be wrong.
In the 1970s, Arabs were supposedly going to run the world because of their perceived oil hegemony. That didn’t happen. Then, in the 1980s and into the 1990s, the U.S. was fixated on the idea that Japan, Inc. was destined to run the world. Two decades of non-existent growth exposed that faulty notion.
Now, we face China, which has transformed itself from a mostly poor and rural farm economy into the world’s factory floor in five decades. This development is not the result of China’s adherence to communist doctrine. It’s primarily due to decades of market-minded reforms that essentially ended under Xi Jinping’s rule and China’s access to world markets as a result of its questionable admittance to the World Trade Organization in 2001.
For 20 years, the U.S. has been trying to decide whether China is a competitor or an adversary. There are arguments for each, but at this point, only the most optimistic can imagine the answer is anything other than “adversary.”
“Americans now view China as the United States’ greatest enemy, an opinion held by 49% of respondents in the latest poll,” according to Gallup. At least 67% of Americans view China’s military power as a “critical” threat while another 29% view it as merely an “important” threat.
Similarly, 97% view China’s economic power as a threat of one kind or another.
Too many people, even some in the U.S., believe the communist Chinese model is superior to our own. Let’s take a hard look at our new rival and how we compare to them.
First, let’s think about the economy. Depending on how you count, China is either the largest or the second-largest economy globally. Yet, Americans make between four and six times more than the Chinese per capita. In other words, the size of the Chinese economy is in large part due to the sheer, overwhelming size of its population.
How about wealth? Chinese per capita wealth grew exponentially from $4,247 at the start of the century to $67,771 last year. But even that impressive record pales compared to the $290,275 increase in U.S. wealth per capita (to $505,421) during those years. America’s accumulated wealth ($126.3 trillion) continues to dwarf China’s ($74.9 trillion).
The U.S. also has an enormous advantage because the dollar is the world’s reserve currency, accounting for 62% of central bank foreign reserves in 2019. By comparison, the Chinese renminbi accounts for 2% of the world’s central bank reserves, giving America a more-than-respectable 31-to-1 advantage.
This disparity is, in considerable measure, due to America’s commitment to private property, the rule of law, our relative lack of corruption and our dominance of most of the world’s international institutions. And let’s not discount the practical value of America’s ability to project overwhelming military force worldwide.
How about demographics and population? Demographers tell us that, by 2031, China’s population will peak and then start a slow and steady drop for the remainder of the century. In tandem with that decline, China’s population will age rapidly; by 2040, the share of China’s population aged 65 or older — 344 million people — will double to 23.7%. America’s population is projected to age as well, but much more slowly.
China suffers from a troublesome gender imbalance. As of 2020, China housed 47.9 million more men than women aged 64 or younger. Even more bothersome, of those millions, the imbalance is greatest among the country’s youngest age cohorts. Chinese health authorities call this disparity “the most serious and prolonged.” This situation, created primarily by China’s ill-devised (and forcibly-implemented) One-Child policy, combined with Chinese families’ preference for male children, ensures delayed and suboptimal family formation. Social unrest is likely to follow.
The U.S. population’s age, size and composition are limited only by our demographic contours and our willingness to accept and assimilate immigrants. Most conversations around immigration — both legal and illegal — stem around associated challenges. But thinking about it from a different perspective, the desire to become American, and in many instances, the struggles that people are willing to endure to do so, is the best indicator that the Chinese model is not ascendant.
Each year, more than a million people immigrate into the U.S. legally. Perhaps another million enter the country illegally. Meanwhile, China experiences net out-migration of more than half a million people each year. Tellingly, many of them make their way to the U.S., making China among the top origin countries of America’s immigrant population.
In short, people worldwide — including the Chinese — are voting with their feet for the U.S.
What about culture? The U.S. has been (for better or worse) the largest and most significant cultural, global content provider for at least five decades — roughly since television became ubiquitous. That is unlikely to change any time soon.
One obvious result of this dominance concerning cultural content is that English is now the world’s reserve language (lingua franca). Of course, English colonialism was essential in the linguistic colonization of the world, but the U.S. expanded and completed the process. Roughly 1.35 billion people speak English, and about 1 billion speak it as a second language. By comparison, roughly 1.1 billion people speak Mandarin — almost all as a first language.
Try a thought experiment. How would you feel about a world where all the elites spoke Mandarin instead of English, conducted business in Mandarin instead of English, and schoolchildren learned Mandarin instead of English? If you want a sense of winning the global war for hearts and minds, track how many people speak which language.
A meaningful part of America’s global dominance relies on education. According to the Center for World University Rankings, 29 of the top 50 universities globally are found in the U.S. The highest-rated Chinese university is #58. Not surprisingly, more than 300,000 Chinese students are studying in American universities, while only around 10,000 American students are studying in China.
Then consider America’s innovation advantage. The U.S. has long been one of the world’s most innovative countries, consistently outperforming China. While China is closing the gap, it was not until 2019 that the World Intellectual Property Organization’s “Global Innovation Index” identified it as one of the world’s 15 most innovative countries.
By comparison, the U.S. ranked as the world’s third most innovative country last year. Our advantage over China would be even greater if not for China’s ongoing theft of American intellectual property, with U.S. losses totaling perhaps as much as $600 billion each year.
Finally, let’s think about national security. The United States Armed Forces, while smaller in number than China’s, have several advantages. First, the U.S. invests three times more in defense each year than China. American armed forces are better trained and, unlike their Chinese counterparts, have extensive combat experience.
While the U.S. enjoys two of the longest non-militarized borders on the planet — it could and should devote more attention to maintaining its porous borders — fully half of China’s military resources are devoted to maintaining border security.
Moreover, China is surrounded by neighbors who range from hostile (India) to wary (Philippines). Countries along that spectrum include Vietnam, Australia, Japan, and most importantly, Taiwan. To give you some sense of the effect of this hostility, the Chinese Navy, despite its impressive recent build-up, still constitutes less than one-third of the total naval tonnage in the region. China’s navy also has less than half of the tonnage of the U.S. Navy (4.6 million tons v. 2 million tons).
China is aggressively promoting its “Belt & Road” initiative. Still, the U.S. has curated alliances and partnerships in the region and elsewhere, including restoring “The Quad” coalition under the Trump administration.
In short, China is far from being the all-powerful international hegemon it seeks to be. It has definite frailties. But even a frail “bull in a China shop”— pardon the pun — is extremely dangerous and should be treated as such.
China may never approach the U.S. concerning our cultural, economic, political, or military power. Then again, it may. But whether we remain the global hegemon is more up to us than anyone else.
America’s belief in the importance of the individual makes it great. As does our reliance on the rule of law, the spirit of enterprise and innovation, our willingness to defend freedom, and the clear understanding that government can be destructive and must therefore be limited.
These principles are essential to who we are. Overcoming the challenges China presents and extending America’s leading position in the world begins with keeping America great.
James Carter is director of the America First Policy Institute’s Center for American Prosperity. Previously, he served as deputy undersecretary of Labor under President George W. Bush and as chief minority Economist on the U.S. Senate Budget Committee staff. Michael McKenna is a contributing editor at the Washington Times and was a deputy assistant to the President during the Trump administration.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.
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