Taylor Jackson: China’s continued ascendance is not guaranteed—and this makes the coming decade more dangerous

China's economic growth dropped from over 10 percent in 2010 to less than 6 percent in 2019
Indian demonstrators shout slogans and call for boycott of Chinese products during a demonstration in Gauhati, India, Thursday, June 18, 2020. Twenty Indian troops who were killed in the clash Monday night that was the deadliest conflict between the sides in 45 years. India on Thursday cautioned China against making "exaggerated and untenable claims" to the Galvan Valley area even as both nations tried to end a standoff in the high Himalayan region where their armies engaged in a deadly clash. Anupam Nath/AP Photo.

China’s rise as a global power has been rapid and awe-inspiring. Since 1980, China has seen an 80-fold expansion in the size of its economy, and in the past decade, as its military might has strengthened, it has taken an increasingly assertive role in the Asia-Pacific region.

Together, China’s rise and the relative decline of the United States have led to a resurgence of what some have termed “great power competition,” where the world’s most powerful states increasingly compete to shape global security dynamics, international trade and investment flows, and the very norms and orders that govern state behaviour.

This new period may mark the end of American unipolarity and the coming of a more bipolar, or perhaps even a multipolar world. In this era, revisionist states like China, and to a lesser degree, a revanchist Russia, will increasingly challenge the U.S.-led liberal international order.

However, often laden within such views is an implicit assumption that China will continue to rise. But what if China’s ascendance doesn’t continue, and what if China’s rise begins to dramatically slow or stall altogether?

This potential reality is not given enough attention in current strategic thinking. Yet, the results could be just as dangerous as a world where the expansion of Chinese power continues, further contesting U.S. dominance.

Consider six internal and external factors that might abate China’s ascendance in the coming years:

  1. China’s economic growth in the last 30 years has no doubt been impressive. But the tendency to focus on the topline GDP numbers can mask how far behind China is compared to the United States in other important economic measures. While the overall size of China’s economy is now larger than the United States by some estimates, when comparing living standards (GDP per capita), the two countries are not even close. In 2020, the United States had a per capita GDP of over $60,000 (in 2017 international dollars). On the other hand, China’s was a little over $16,000 in the same year, which is less than that of Mexico. At the same time, Chinese economic growth is, in fact, slowing, dropping from over 10 percent in 2010 to less than 6 percent in 2019. These growth rates may still be higher than in the United States, but the downward trajectory should raise serious questions about just how much China’s economic heft will continue to expand in the near future.
  1. This leads to the second factor working against China’s continued ascendence. That is, China’s turn towards an even heavier hand of government in directing the economy. The story of China’s economic miracle is one of unleashing the power of markets and expanding global trade. Yet, under President Xi Jinping, China is heading in the opposite direction. In recent years, the Chinese state has brought in several new regulations on private firms and entrepreneurs, increasingly restrained the ability of Chinese firms to attract capital, and expanded the role of state-owned enterprises, all to assert further political control over the economy. This will not bode well for China’s future economic growth potential.
  1. A third internal force working against China is the continued and, in many cases, worsening state repression of the Chinese people—be that against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the people of Hong Kong, or countless others. The Chinese state appears to be maintaining control for now. But it is unclear how much the Chinese people will tolerate such repression in the future and what effect this may have on China’s internal stability.
  1. Switching to the external environment, another factor working against China’s rise is the fact that the U.S. still maintains a preponderance of military power over China. The United States continues to spend more on defence than the next 11 countries combined, and it remains unmatched in its ability to project power at sea, in the air, or in its ability to “command the commons.”
  1. Before China can become a genuinely dominant global power, it will first seek to become dominant in the Indo-Pacific region. This will be no easy task. China is surrounded on three sides by other great powers, namely India, Japan, and Russia. Each of these countries has its own strategic interests in the region, which will increasingly clash with China’s expansion. Japan, for example, has actively indicated that Taiwan’s stability is in its own security interests, and just this past week, Japan and Australia signed a new defence pact. India and China have also recently clashed over disputed territory along their Himalayan border, resulting in casualties on both sides. Since then, China and India have increasingly militarized the region, and the dispute remains unsettled. China will have its hands full managing great power politics within its own region before expanding its power too far abroad.
  1. Finally, as China seeks to compete with the United States, it will be hard to do so unilaterally. The U.S. has a robust alliance network that President Biden is working to repair after the damage caused by the Trump presidency. Yet as analysts Ali Wyne and Ryan Hass make clear in a recent article, “China’s diplomacy is limiting its own ambitions.” Indeed, Xi Jinping’s “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” and its tone of more assertive Chinese nationalism is not engendering China with allies. Canadians know this well, having experienced China’s “hostage diplomacy” in the case of the two Michaels.

If the above forces stunt China’s ascendance, we would be remiss in thinking that such a world is immediately safer than one where China continues to contest American dominance, although one would hope.

Internally, suppose the reality of Chinese power doesn’t match its expected role of regional or global dominance. In that case, this could prompt China to become more aggressive economically and militarily, recognizing that its time to be dominant may be running out.

Externally, there is a risk that the United States overestimates the threat from China by responding more aggressively to its rise than is necessary to secure its interests. Overly aggressive action by the United States that China perceives as threatening its security and survival could, in turn, provoke a military confrontation.

This recognition of the threat from overestimation should not be taken as a suggestion that China’s rise poses no threat to the security, economic standing, and liberal values of the United States, Canada, and their allies. The threat is real and well documented, and it’s one that the Canadian government appears to have not yet come to terms with.

But policymakers should be skeptical of the most hawkish hawks and the most dovish doves when thinking through how to respond to China’s rise and increasing assertiveness. In international politics, overreaction to threats can be just as deadly as underreaction.

At the very least, policymakers need to be increasingly cognizant that China’s continued ascendence is not guaranteed. When paired with the ongoing dynamics of great power competition, this reality means that the coming decade will likely be turbulent, and unlike anything seen in a very long time.

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