Barring a major, long-term decrease in Chinese economic growth rates and perhaps not even then, the aggregate size of China’s economy will ultimately surpass the U.S. economy and become the world’s largest. This transition will presumably occur within the next decade, but this reflects simple arithmetic: China’s population is more than four times that of the United States. It doesn’t presage, however, a decline of American power or influence.
For good or for ill or for somewhere in between, China is destined to emerge as a global power; many observers already believe that it is. It bespeaks an inexorable realignment of power in the international system that is not limited to China. But characterizations of “us versus them” are well wide of the mark. Competition is inherent in international politics, but this does not automatically imply something malign. At the same time, the adequacy or accuracy of pure nation state conceptions seem increasingly outdated.
The larger issues that confront U.S.-China relations are twofold: whether our respective leaders and institutions can develop relationships and norms that enable the transition to a redefined global order that both states and other powers deem legitimate; and whether it will be possible to prevent or inhibit an adversarial competition. These will depend on statesmanship, bureaucratic behavior and even emotional control.
Do the people of the United States believe that the emergence of a more prosperous and powerful China poses inherent risks to American well being and national security? Do the people of China believe that the United States is unprepared to accept the legitimacy of China’s emergence? These are not questions with straightforward answers, but they must be addressed with candor and without preconception. Zero-sum thinking will do little to advance the possibilities of a future that both countries see in their mutual interest.