In David Beitelman’s recent PolicyMic piece, my colleague argues that he perceives China’s rise to prominence in world affairs as exaggerated and America’s decline as overestimated. I would like to refute his position.
Beitelman makes no reference to the fact that China is rediscovering its historical position in the world. Until its mysterious retreat from the international stage in the 15th century, it was the world’s foremost exploratory power, with documented influence in Europe, Africa and possibly the Americas. I would see its modern emergence as a continuation of that tradition, rather than an unprecedented geopolitical shift.
But conversely, China is sitting on more money than it knows what to do with. It is becoming a leader in the generation of renewable energy and increasingly moving to developing economic sectors with higher added-value. That quintessentially means moving beyond being the world’s factory and creating indigenous hi-tech industries, innovations and a research-intensive economy, but without making the same mistake as America and letting go of the real economy. As Marx said, the capitalist cycle has to go through money-production-money, rather than the money-money-money (commodification of money) cycle preached by neoliberal discourse.
Let’s make a simple comparison – on a per capita basis, the United States stands at approximately$47,000, while China is at about a seventh of that. If China were at the same level of income per capita, its economy would be almost equivalent to the size of today’s entire world economy. Even at 9-10% growth per year, it would take decades for China to achieve the same individual standard of living as the U.S. The point behind this comparison is that China does not need to be economically superior to the U.S. to be more powerful; America is not the criteria here, because the mindset of the average Chinese is not that of the average American – consequently, economic logic does not follow the American model either; however, this is a historical perspective much beyond the scope of this article.
Comparing the U.S. and China militarily, as Beitelman does, can only be done up to the point of hard power capacity, and yes, Beitelman is right in that China does not benefit from the same capabilities as the U.S. America U.S. is a superpower surrounded by relatively weak neighbors, while China has three other superpowers in every direction: Russia, India, Japan and, increasingly, Iran. The relationship with Russia has varied through the decades, the one with India is more tense than constructive, and relations with Japan are also becoming subtly tenser. Conversely, the U.S. still dominates the Americas without any real opposition, yet. China’s military capabilities are limited by its economic potential, but also primarily reflective of its immediate security needs. To underscore the point, China has seen revolutions, invasions, world and civil wars, regime change, genocide and instability all within the last 100 years, and this legacy is at the bottom of the Chinese policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. America has never suffered the same extent of devastation, and coupled with a history of relative isolationism, Washington is not able to comprehend the motivations of Chinese foreign policy. Thus, hard power is the primary means of American foreign policy, but in the case of China, it is more of a secondary than a driving force. The question is not who has the bigger biceps, but rather, who has the more flexible foreign policy. For now and in this century, the answer is China.
Domestically, Beitelman does point out the issues related to the quality of food production and construction materials in China as fundamental challenges – conversely, the corn-fed cows in mass farms (cows weren’t made to eat corn), industrial chicken farms, genetically altered foods and the cardboard sheds we call houses on this side of the world are no less fundamental issues for the United States; a tornado or a hurricane, coupled with flooding, underscores the idiocy of building standards in America through the thousands left homeless after such an event. The point is that these issues are not confined to China – they are faced by every country in the world, including the superpowers.
Beitelman's article is open-ended in asking if China can sustain its growth without collapsing under its own weight – the answer is no, because it has, for one, a real economy and two, trillions of dollars in currency reserves. The U.S. is in dire straits here, because the recent questioning of Washington’s credit rating by S&P, the overwhelming debt and the first ever U.N. review of how the over-glorified Uncle Sam scores on human rights are indicative in that U.S. exceptionalism is ending and being replaced by a diminished role in international affairs via multilateral organizations.
I will conclude this piece with what I think is the real question – America proposed the ideal of democracy, capitalism, civic rights and the American Dream in the way of a global ideology to unite humans, and that was a fundament for its foreign policy. That ideal is gone. Now, it is China’s turn – does Beijing have the stuff to be a moral and ideological global leader, ahead of a military or an economic one?
History will tell.
Photo Credit: Philip Jagenstedt