Continuing the Discussion: The Next Superpower: China Far From Ready

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ZHAOYIN FENG
Associate Editor
SAIS Washington

Andrew Moravcsik set a piquant title for his recent speech: ‘Why Europe is the next super power (but China is not).’

As a Chinese citizen, I frowned instinctively at his bold statement. Nonetheless, after his speech, I have been convinced that China may fail to surpass the US to become the next superpower, due to the fact that its economic power is greatly diluted in per capita terms and it may face various internal obstacles to maintaining a fast growth rate.

As the second largest economy with the largest population and the third largest territory in the world, China is undoubtedly a big and significant player. However, China’s size does not necessarily mean greater power.

Economically, China is colossal but not powerful because it is a giant economy with meager per capita GDP. A country’s economic power should be assessed by both its gross and individual economic capability. Arguably, the latter is even more important, as it reveals the degree of human development, key to a country’s future.

In 2012 China’s GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity was merely $7,958, close to that of Albania and Ecuador, less than that of Colombia, Turkmenistan and Dominican Republic and  only 18% of the US GDP. China is catching up, as its GDP per capita was $3,398 and 8% of the US ten years ago.

However, if it took China a decade to make up 10% of the gap, when would China surpass the present superpower? The answer may not be “after a few decades”, as China’s present growth pattern is very problematic and hardly sustainable.

Depending on low value-added exports, environmentally unfriendly industries and massive government spending to fuel its growth, China so far has failed to boost domestic consumption and transform to a high technology and service-focused economy.

Moreover, China has gradually run out of demographic dividends and will face an aging society and a radically decreased population in the 2050s. China is an overheated vehicle dashing madly. It may crash in any direction, or more likely, it will be exhausted internally and unable to recover until it fixes its ‘engine’– the growth pattern –  and fills up with ‘gasoline’ – sufficient and educated human resources. Perhaps the driver should be replaced too. Elites are gingerly debating possible political reforms.

Admittedly, the US has its own problems. Nevertheless, it is a relatively stable and
sustainable economy, while China’s economy has skyrocketed up but is also likely to crash suddenly. I agree that unlike Europe, China is able to take unified actions and has the ambition to lead. However, it is not any closer to surpassing the US’ hegemonic status, not to mention the close alliance among the US, Europe and Japan. The US is not giving away its hegemony and continues to march forward with strong allies, a fine political structure, a mature growth pattern and an overwhelming stock of military and economic power, while China has none of the above. It is too early to worry about China turning into a superpower.