Can China Surpass USA?

By Shulan O. Primavera


In 1975, China was just about to come out from the devastating ten- year (1966-76) Cultural Revolution with its then famous “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend” slogan.


So, in 1975, China was not a power, not even a regional one, much less a world power. In 1978, two years after Mao Tze Tung died, Deng Xiaoping enunciated his opening and reform policy and undertook his now famous tour of Guandong, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Xiamen, Macau, and Fujian, where he enunciated certain economic principles, such as: “to get rich is glorious”, “let’s make the coasts rich first before the interior “, and “let’s put up special economic zones along the coasts”.


These calls for economic growth were complemented with calls to be more circumspect such as: “ bide your time, hide your strength,” and “feel the stones underneath your feet when crossing a river”. That marked the so-called China’s “peaceful rise.”


That was 1978. Under Deng, there was no talk of a Century of National Humiliation although there were strident calls for National Rejuvenation. The focus was how to get rich, obtain with American help WTO membership, which they did in 2012, coincidentally marking the assumption to power of Xi Jinping, who will radically transform China’s peaceful rise.


Internally, Deng Xiaoping’s theory laid out the basic issues concerning the building, consolidating, and developing “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. In short, even under Deng’s 20-year helmsmanship, China never abandoned its heavenly mandated “tran xia” or China’s centrality on global affairs, which made it the Middle Kingdom in the early centuries and enabling it to impose the tributary system.


The West’s egregious misappreciation of Deng’s intentions was not tempered even with Deng’s brutal suppression of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. The Clinton administration continued to embrace the hope that Deng’s market-oriented economic policies would be complemented with more liberal - oriented political policies. Those expectations never materialized. Deng passed away in February 1997.


If Japan marked its rise as a regional power by hosting the summer Tokyo Olympics in 1964, China ushered in its “coming out” in 2008 by hosting the Beijing Olympics that year, or three decades after Deng’s exhortations for Chinese to get rich! ( it’s no coincidence that following Japanese economist Oishi’s flying geese development /economic flight track, it also took Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, 30 years to reach their present economic status. Again, it’s no coincidence that in 2019 or a year after its coming out, China surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy.


The next milestone we should be aware of is 2025 with its Made in China 2025 or 2030 to mark China’s aim to surpass the US as the dominant economic power! This is not to lessen China’s ambition to be at par with the US militarily in 2050!


These days, under Xi, who was recently elevated President for Life, there has been too much talk on the Rise of National Honor/ Century of National Humiliation! While in the recent past, Western political writers exemplified by Elizabeth Economy, a fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford University, and an officer at the Council on Foreign Relations, would point out Mao Tse Tung, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping, in that order, as China’s greatest revolutionaries, China’s own historians depict only Mao and Xi as the only true revolutionaries as the centennial celebration of the CCP comes nearer this July 1, 2021.


Will Xi Jinping hasten China’s emergence as an economic and military power in this century or will he be the cause for China to falter?


It is interesting to note that sometime in the 6th century BC, Chinese Emperor Wen Di was quoted as saying: “When two emperors simultaneously rise, one has to destroy the other.”


At that time, Vietnam was emerging as a power, which China viewed as a threat. China then decided to colonize Vietnam, which lasted for one thousand years. That was the Asian version of the Thucydides trap.


In the 21st century, the possible recurrence of the Thucydides trap is being revived with China, as the emerging power supplanting Athens and the United States, as the current power supplanting Sparta, eventually leading to the Peloponnesian War.


Will there be a Thucydides Trap, part II? Economically, 2030 may mark the year


China’s $11 trillion, equal if not surpass, the United States’ $20 trillion GNP. That is as far as GNP is concerned. When it comes to GDP per capita, however, the gap is enormous. The GDP per capita of the United States is $59,000 as against China’s $18,000.


When it comes to soft power, the United States enjoys dominance. At any given semester, half a million Chinese students are enrolled in American universities while not more than 50,000 Americans and other foreigners are studying in Chinese universities. Confucius Institutes while visible in 500 or so American and European universities, are no match to institutes maintained by the Asian Foundation, Rockefeller and Western Institutes in terms of funding, programs, and extra-curricular activities being offered.


It is in the military dimension that the gap between the two countries is huge and seemingly unbridgeable. Presently, the United States had 11 nuclear powered aircraft carriers each carrying 70 jet fighters and accompanied everywhere by eight to 12 various warships and nuclear powered and armed submarines compared to China’s two non-nuclear powered aircraft carriers, the Liaoning, a second hand battleship from Ukraine, and the Liaoshung.

The defense budget of the United States is bigger than the combined budgets of the next biggest seven countries. And the US spends 40 percent of its defense budget on R&D on military matters, the highest percentage than all the others combined.


China has still a long way to go to surpass, if ever, the US militarily even in space, on cyber security and all matters involving national security.


Editor’s note: The writer is a retired career diplomat. He hails from Lagonoy, Camarines sur.