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The issue is not America's decline, but China's rise

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COMMENTS

8 January 2009 09:56

The way one thinks about international affairs depends a lot on time-frame. Like Sam, I agree with much of Michael Fullilove’s argument that talk about US decline is exaggerated, as long as we are talking about the next say, ten years. But what about twenty, or thirty years from now? Then I think the chances the America will lose global primacy are quite high. And don’t believe for a moment that two or three decades is too far away to worry about; those decades just whizz by.  

To start, I especially agree with Michael that much of the current genre of ‘decline analysis’ focuses on the problems of the past eight years, and draws exaggerated conclusions from them. America today does indeed have deep problems, including a slowing economy and two very complex and costly wars. (And let me parenthetically register here my gloomy fear that America’s military engagement in Iraq may still have a long way to run yet, while Afghanistan is unwinnable.)

Michael is surely right, however, to say that these problems alone will not bring down a country of America’s immense power, with its formidable capacity for recovery and re-invention. The election of Obama is itself a potent demonstration of that capacity at work. But there are deeper, long-term trends bearing on the future of America’s relative power which may defy even the remarkable resilience of the great republic. 

The problem is not American weakness, but China’s growing strength. Economic power is the essence of political and strategic power, and China’s economy has a good chance – not a certainty, but a good chance — of sustaining over the next thirty years something like the rates of economic growth of the past thirty. If it does, it will approach and probably overtake the US to become the largest economy in the world. As China’s economic power grows, so too will its strategic and political power, and America’s relative power – the only kind that matters – will decline. 

This argument can be contested at every point:

  • One can argue that America’s power is a product of its values and institutions, not its economy. It is an attractive idea, especially to Americans. But is it true? The historical evidence strongly suggests the contrary. America rose to global strategic power only after it had achieved global economic primacy. Likewise Britain. Economic primacy seems to be at least necessary for strategic primacy. So if America loses economic primacy, good institutions and values won’t preserve its leadership.  (An aside: economic primacy may be not just necessary, but in most cases even sufficient, for strategic primacy. Has it ever been true in history before that economic power has not been translated into strategic power, with the notable exception of post-war Japan?)
  • One can argue that China’s economic growth will falter, which it may. But we need to be careful of wishful thinking here, and accept that the Chinese combination of capitalism and Leninism is no longer a passing aberration, but a mature and apparently workable system with a good record of effective response to the challenges of sustaining economic growth. Of course we cannot be sure it will succeed, but we cannot by any means be sure it won’t.
  • One can argue that even if China does keep growing it will not overtake the US economically. Greg Sheridan has recently put this case in the Australian Literary Review, but Ian Castles does a neat job of dissecting Greg’s argument over at the East Asia Forum. 
  • One can argue that, even as its economic power declines relative to others, American military power will remain pre-eminent. Michael, like many others, cites how much more the US spends on defence than others do as an index of American power. I don’t buy it. At the practical level, the question is not what you spend but what you buy with it, and what you can do with it. Bush and Co have shown us just how little one can achieve with the world’s most expensive military, and US operational options in the Western Pacific have shrunk and will shrink further over coming decades. At a deeper level, does anyone believe America can compel with armed force a primacy that it can no longer command with economic power? Joe Stalin tried that.

What does all this mean? Not that America is finished: it will remain an immensely powerful and important country, and a force for good in the world. But there is a significant chance that over the next few decades it will loose the position of uncontested primacy — especially in Asia — that has been so central to Asia’s, and to Australia’s, security over the past thirty years. That has big implications for Australia.

Photo by Flickr user don.lee, used under a Creative commons license.

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