China’s Military Strength Has Been Greatly Exaggerated
At this point, most everyone is now familiar with a certain narrative about China. Namely, the narrative about how China will soon be the most economically powerful country in the world, and how its military power will soon eclipse that of the United States.
Many believe this has happened already. According to a March Gallup poll, for instance, half of Americans polled believe China to be the world’s “leading economic power,” and more than 60 percent believe China to be a “critical threat.”
But is China really poised to rival the United States as a major global power?
In his book, Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower, Michael Beckley certainly doesn’t think China is in a position to do any such thing.
Beckley, a fellow in the International Security Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, delves into the available economic, demographic, and military data on China to determine whether the Chinese regime can really hope to become a global power in the same league as the United States.
His answer? Such a scenario is extremely unlikely. Rather than heading in the direction of rivaling the United States, China is a rapidly aging, inefficient, conflict-ridden, and relatively poor country that simply is not on the road to seriously challenging the US’s hegemony.
But why are so many convinced that China is immensely powerful?
Size Doesn’t Equal Power
Much of this, Beckley shows, stems from misunderstandings over how to measure military power. It is often assumed, for example, that gross domestic product (GDP) is the key factor in determining overall geopolitical power. China of course, has a huge GDP that’s comparable to that of the United States. But as Beckley observes, a large GDP isn’t necessarily a big advantage when a country has over a billion residents. In practice, a large GDP doesn’t mean a regime has immense amounts of resources available for war making. Rather, a huge portion of GDP in a highly populous country must go toward providing food, housing, and basic necessities to its enormous population. What is at least as important, Beckley points out, is per capita GDP which is a better indicator of net resources.
We can see this in comparing the US and China today. The US and China have similar overall GDP measures, depending on which statistic one uses. But the US achieves its huge GDP with a population that’s one-third the size of China’s. This means only a small portion of America’s GDP is used for basic needs such as food and housing. In other words, the US has a China-sized economy, but that huge economy is produced by a much smaller number of people who live much farther above subsistence than the average Chinese. This means the US could, if necessary, devote much more of its wealth and resources to war making before the general population had to endure significant declines in the standard of living. A country that lives closer to subsistence levels—as China does—has no such luxury.
In many ways, it’s better to be wealthy than large. For example, Britain’s economy was much smaller than China’s during the nineteenth century, yet Britain repeatedly defeated China in the Opium Wars. Similarly, Japan repeatedly humi
Article from Mises Wire