Even just a decade ago, the impact of ‘China’s rise’ used to be spoken of in the long term. Yet those days are already behind us. Economically and diplomatically, China’s influence is now felt across the globe. In Africa, exports are dependent on Chinese domestic demand. In Latin America, interest rate policy is determined in reaction to policies set in Beijing. In time, China’s growing military prowess may also grow to the point that the country can truly be recognised as a superpower.
But in the near term at least there’s been an unhelpful tendency to exaggerate the impact China will have on international affairs. Setting aside the question of whether China’s rise is cause for celebration or concern, far too much is being extrapolated from current trends. The full realisation of its potential remains a long way off, and in the coming decades China won’t be a rapidly rising power, but a slow, steady and uncertain one.
The problem is that many of the indicators used to judge China’s success are misleading. Having constructed the world’s second largest economy, China’s wealth is increasingly measured against that of the United States—and the sense that Beijing’s position is strengthening in relation to Washington’s is pervasive. Many analysts are quick to point to graphs, for example, that suggest that China’s growth will overtake the United States within the next two decades, implying that when it does it will mark an eclipsing of US influence too.
But focusing on China’s overall GDP is deceptive. The day at which China’s overall goods and services eclipse those of the United States will see no sudden and remarkable realignment of the world order. The Allies’ victory in World War II, which created the bipolar world overseen by the US and USSR, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which elevated the United States to a position of unipolarity, aren’t suitable comparisons.
For all its progress, per capita GDP in China remains low. Last year, when spread across its gigantic population, China’s GDP amounted to just $6,600 per person compared with the $46,400 for the average American. Such figures highlight an important point—while China’s overall GDP is fast approaching that of the US, the level of disposable income in the country remains low. It will be decades before China is able to introduce the tax rates that would be necessary to fund a global presence akin to that adopted by the US military.