Pundits, political scientists, and that one know it all relative are all telling us that the rise of China will spell the end of the American-led liberal order. To be sure, China is a major and influential power which will play an increasingly important role on the international stage. Chinese led fora like the AIIB and the SCO are creating parallel institutions that work alongside – and sometimes in opposition to – American institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and NATO. Nevertheless, while China will certainly be an influential country in the coming decades, it will not replace the United States as the world’s preeminent power.
The primary reason that the U.S. will maintain its position as global hegemon is simply its awesome military power. No other country spends nearly as much on its armed forces as the U.S., and most of the other top military spenders are American allies. While China has massively increased its defense spending, this doesn’t mean that much when its absolute spending levels are still relatively small compared to the U.S. Moreover, even if China spent more aggressively (something that seems unlikely given its current economic malaise), it would still take years for China to develop the manufacturing capabilities, technology level, and organizational doctrine at levels approaching those of the United States. While China’s military is certainly growing in power and professionalism, it lacks any meaningful power projection capabilities. China lacks the alliance network of the U.S. and the logistical proficiency to deploy significant quantities of troops in theaters outside of Asia. In other words, while China is certainly becoming a major regional power, it is far from becoming a global military superpower.
Moreover, for all the talk of Chinese miracle, the Chinese economy is really doing quite poorly. China’s rate of economic growth is slowing, its stock market is a complete shambles, and the government is in enormous amounts of debt. China is also facing a middle-income trap as it tries to transition from an export-driven economy to a consumer based economy. Finally, and most damningly, China cannot innovate. While the Chinese are quite proficient at stealing American ingenuity, they are actually quite backward technologically. As William Wohlforth and Daryl Press point out in their recent Foreign Affairs article, China relies primarily on “process trading,” a system where parts are imported into China, assembled, and then exported out. There is very little actual innovation in China. Indeed, Brooks and Wohlforth point out that “In the past, rising states had levels of technological prowess similar to those of leading ones… This meant that when these challengers rose economically, they could soon mount a serious military challenge to the dominant power. China’s relative technological backwardness today, however, means that even if its economy continues to gain ground, it will not be easy for it to catch up militarily and become a true global strategic peer, as opposed to a merely a major player in its own neighborhood.”
It’s also unclear that China will pay the costs of becoming a global peer competitor of the United States. After all, the United States maintains a commanding position in the global commons that would be difficult to undermine. Only the U.S can project power to any part of the globe, only the U.S. has a major presence in every major multilateral forum, and only the U.S. has the economic power to win a prolonged arms race. It’s important to remember that the building of the U.S. liberal order was not cheap or easy. It occurred only because the threat posed by the U.S.S.R. was sufficiently concerning to the American public that they were willing to shell out huge amounts of money to finance the U.S. alliance system. It’s unlikely that middle class Chinese will be willing to hand over their money to finance an arms race with the U.S., a country that does not pose an existential threat to China.
Finally, China has very few friends. Indeed, almost every country in Asia is highly suspicious of China. Japan is worried about Chinese designs on the Senkakus; the Philippines and Vietnam are furious over Chinese shenanigans in the South China Sea; Taiwan fears invasion; South Korea is irate that China doesn’t do more to reign in North Korea. For a country to become a global power, they need friends and allies to support them. The United States has benefitted immensely from its docile Candian and Mexican neighbors and its close European friends. Indeed, Wohlforth and Press declare that the “list of U.S. allies reads as a who’s who of the world’s most advanced economies, and these partners have lowered the price of maintaining the United States’ superpower status.” China, by contrast, has managed to alienate almost every one of its neighbors. Instead of projecting its power across the planet, it is bogged down in Asia, at odds with nearby countries. If a country can’t even assert control over its regional sphere of influence, it stands no chance of becoming a global superpower.
China is certainly an important country, and it should be closely watched. The 21st century will likely be an Asian century, and China will play a major role in shaping events to come. It will not, however, replace the United States as the preeminent global power, at least not for the foreseeable future.