The rise of China, part I: the new realpolitik

We live in an interregnum, wherein the position of most-powerful single country is going from the US to China, with all major international players knowing this and no-one is seriously hindering its occurrence. The world has learned from the disastrous attempts in the last 2 centuries of existing superpowers trying to wreck emerging other super-powers, and is actively trying to co-opt China rather than wreck it. In this 3 part series I will look at what the rise of China will mean for world politics and economics. In this first part I look at the external realpolitik and will look in the next installments at the internal politics between the Party and capitalists within China.

The most important thing to say is that the power of China is likely to be more limited than the power of the US was in the last 25 years, or that the combined power of ‘the West’ was in the last century. There are relatively fewer Chinese, they are more dependent on trade with others, and they will be relatively less wealthy than the West was.

Fewer Chinese, you may wonder, aren’t there over a billion of them? Yes, but that is still only 1/5th of the world population and given their dropping fertility numbers, this number will drop to 1/6th soon. In comparison, the capitalist West in 1950 according to the Maddison numbers (Europe plus the US plus off-shoots) was also 1/6th of the world population but the whole population of mainly European descent, hence including the Soviet Union and Latin America, was closer to 35% in 1950, and currently makes up 25%. So yes, there are fewer Chinese now than there are Westerners, people with clear European ancestry.

When it comes to international relations, it is important to bear in mind that the cultural proximity between the West and the rest of the non-Chinese world is closer than that with China. India, with its considerable use of English and cultural and genetic similarities with the Europeans, is undoubtedly closer to the West than to China. The rest of Asia is more or less in equal blocks on this front, whilst Africa is much closer to the West than to China. Hence the population of `cultural allies’ is heavily skewed against China, both today and in the foreseeable future.

Furthermore, the Chinese are  far more dependent on trade than the West was in its heyday. The vast majority of US trade in 1950 was internal, and later on occurred mainly with other Western countries. In comparison, well over half of China’s manufacturing is export oriented with countries outside of its cultural proximity. The same goes for import, making China far more dependent on the goodwill of the rest of the world than the West was in the last century. Serious disruption to the international order would thus be even worse for China than it  was for the West during the Great Depression. On this self-interest count alone, one should expect the Chinese to be good world citizens.

Last, but not least, the Chinese will probably end up being less rich per person than the West. If the examples of Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and other such countries are something to go by, China will not overtake the GDP per capita of the West, but rather end up in the lower range. If you  look at the ranking lists of GDP per capita countries now, you effectively only see Germanic countries in addition to the odd small resource-rich countries and small trade-conduit countries (Singapore). Japan and Korea are some 20% poorer per person than the US, Germany, and the small Germanic countries. If we presume that China in 20 years time will stop growing when it reaches that same level, then its economy will only be 3 times that of the US, and about as big as the total of a narrow conception of the West. China will thus be lucky to end up with 20% of world GDP in 2040 (see again the Maddison projections). In comparison, the West in its heyday was far wealthier, with well over 50% of GDP in 1950.

Given that military might is a mere off-shoot of economic might and population, China won’t be all that powerful. Furthermore, as already discussed, China is more culturally different to the rest of the world than almost any other country – virtually no-one else speaks its language, uses its alphabet, shares its religion (Confucianism, Taoism, and atheism), or feels part of its history. In terms of natural allies China is somewhat lonely.

What China does have is a large diaspora of Chinese, around 50 million or so, that left China in the last 2 centuries (mainly the middle of the 19th century as a result of a famine and recently as a result of study-related migration), and that are now integral parts of Western countries. This diaspora is very important for China’s behaviour because it means it has a natural reason to remain friendly with the West and gives the West a natural reason to be friendly with China. Western countries do not want to make enemies with segments of their own population, and China will not want to alienate those who harbour part of its population. These diaspora are thus a natural lubricant between China and the rest of the world, making communication and friendly relations much more straightforward and likely.

What China also has, and will probably keep having for centuries to come, is a greater sense of internal cohesion than any other large block. Compared to India or the West, the Chinese population is far more homogenous, with a single language, history, genetic luggage, and self-identification. It has no fault lines within in it of the type you can even see in the US (with the Federates and the Unionists; the Catholics and the protestants, the East Coast and the West Coast, the Latinos and the Wasps, etc.).

This internal cohesion means that China will be for the far foreseeable future the single most powerful country in the world. Even when India eventually catches up in terms of GDP per capita, and somewhat outstrips it in terms of population, it will simply not be as coordinated or unified in its opinions and responses to situations.

What about China’s natural enemies? Its natural enemies are those that compete for the same basic resources, or that are close neighbours with strong opposing identities. The whole of the rest of the world fits the description of the former, and countries like Japan and India somewhat fit the latter. The fact that everyone nowadays competes for resources means that the level of conflict arising from that should not be over-estimated since there is too much to lose for too many players. It is thus the regional rivalries that might drag China into conflicts – for instance over water, territory, fishing rights, and the treatment of diasporas. The good news for the West is that these problems are concentrated geographically around China, meaning it is less our problem and gives China even more reason to be nice to us, though the bad news is that the West will naturally be dragged in as counter-veiling powers. This of course is already the case for the last 20 years or so, with the West effectively being in the Japanese, Korean, and Indian military camp; a game that will continue to strengthen.

In terms of minor enemies, such as the fanatical Islamists, the things to know are that China is Christianising and has separatist Muslim minorities. Hence they are with the West if push comes to shove in this conflict too.

If one considers all these basic facts and trends, it should be clear that China for the foreseeable future will be a good world citizen constrained by the greater power of the combined West and its own relatively small stature. It will be the biggest single player in a game in which the rest will find it easy to combine against China, on any topic in which China would want to assert its will against the wishes of other big fish.

Its relative position will probably mean China will become a great advocate of international tribunals, international cooperation, and international conflict-resolving military organisations since it is the best chance for it to get things done. What kind of things? It will also want stable oil supplies and stable diaspora-holding countries, which it will only be able to help secure in cooperation with others.

So whilst it is true that at the moment, China’s influence on the world stage is mainly good news for anyone in conflict with the West because they can now turn to China for trade and other matters, its own long-run interests are not in undermining international cooperation but rather in nudging it more to its own emerging interests, which is entirely logical.

In short, the world with China as the single biggest country looks pretty good. The only real worry is external conflicts started because of internal strife within China. This internal strife surrounds the natural conflict between the Chinese bureaucracy, the Party, and the interests of the capitalists. This is a vast and complicated topic for another day.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

4 thoughts on “The rise of China, part I: the new realpolitik”

  1. Paul, a few inconsistencies in your reasoning.

    You say
    “This internal cohesion means that China will be for the far foreseeable future the single most powerful country in the world. ”

    Then conclude with
    “The only real worry is external conflicts started because of internal strife within China. This internal strife surrounds the natural conflict between the Chinese bureaucracy, the Party, and the interests of the capitalists.”

    So which is it? Internal cohesion or internal friction?

    Second, you say
    “most-powerful single country is going from the US to China” as the key point in the introduction, yet the rest of the post basically cites evidence for why this wont be the case.

    For example, diminishing share of total population, reliance on trade with the existing superpower, people leaving the country, inferior military power (vastly – Chinese military budget is 7% of the global spend, the US is 40%)

    What on earth makes it powerful then? It’s ability to influence global trade and market prices? Are you talking simply GDP? SInce when does GDP = power?

    Why not combine the GDP of the US and its allies to compare with China and its allies?


  2. Cameron,
    sorry, I thought it would have been quite clear what the issue with cohesion and tension is. China is internally cohesive in the sense that it has a single foreign policy and a system for quickly getting mass support for national policy. pen disagreements dont last long there. Yet, behind the scenes there is a huge tussle for just what that single policy is. In less unified countries there are several foreign policies at once and there is no ex post concensus.

    The other issue is the distinction between single most powerful country versus most powerful alliance.

    Military spending at this moment is somewhat irrelevant since we are looking at the longer-term here. Just as the US was far more powerful than its tiny military spending before 1940 suggested, so too will China in 20 years time be far more powerful than its current military spending suggests.


  3. Paul,

    I attempted to comment at Troppo but I cannot. Ken is still stopping me after he didn’t like my response when he was rude and obnoxious to me.

    He can be so insecure and thin-skinned sometimes.

    A person brought up when the USA superceded the UK as a Super-power and also their ‘barney’ over battleships.

    You then quite strangely started talking about the war of indpendence however the changing of the guard of being the number one super-power as well as the ‘debate’ over battledships came in the early 20th century most certainly after the advent of the Dreadnoughts.

    You seem to have missed completely what the writer, I assume, was saying as well as not understnding what era they were writing about.


  4. JB,
    that ‘other writer’ was yourself and you were off on a complete tangent about battleships. I understand perfectly well why Ken banned you from commenting. My patience is wearing thin too.


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