What are your views on Michael Beckley's article "China's Century? Why America's Edge Will Endure"?
Michael Beckley’s 2011 article in the journal International Security, “China’s Century: Why America’s Edge will Endure,” attempts to resolve a lingering debate regarding the relative rise and decline of the world’s two premier economic and military powers, the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America. With China’s ascent as an economic power – it currently ranks second to the United States in gross domestic product – and consequent rise as a military power potentially threatening U.S. interests in Asia and elsewhere (e.g., Chinese diplomatic and economic activities in Asia, Africa and Latin America are intended to secure for China access to natural resources like oil and minerals as well as vital infrastructure like maritime passages that has the side benefit of potentially denying such access to the U.S.), the belief has spread among many people around the world that the 21st will be “China’s Century.” Insofar as the 20th was considered “America’s Century,” given this nation’s ascent as the most powerful country in the world, the implication is that China will overtake the United States as the world’s most powerful nation. The United States’ economic problems, especially the size of its federal debt and the fact that China owns over $1.3 trillion of that debt, are presumed to presage the decline of America’s ability to act internationally as it has in the past 60 years. China’s rise is frequently perceived to be occurring as the U.S. descends. The basis of Beckley’s article, then, is that prognostications regarding China’s rise are predicated upon the assumption that that rise will occur at least in part because of the relative decline of the United States as a global power.
Beckley takes strong issue with assumptions regarding China’s ascent and America’s decline. The “conventional wisdom” he asserts, is predicated upon faulty analyses that suggest globalization is occurring at America’s expense. He summarizes this argument:
“Much of this decline is the result of globalization—the integration of national economies and resultant diffusion of technology from developed to developing countries—and the hegemonic burdens the United States bears to sustain globalization.”
On the other side of the debate, he notes, are those who reject assumptions regarding the effects of globalization and the notion that China’s rise is occurring in direct proportion to America’s descent. He summarizes this view as follows:
“In this view, U.S. power is durable, and globalization and America’s hegemonic role are the main reasons why. The United States derives competitive advantages from its preponderant position, and globalization allows it to exploit these advantages, attracting economic activity and manipulating the international system to its benefit.”
The problems with this debate, according to Beckley, involve faulty assumptions regarding the metrics used to assess national power and relative rankings. The bulk of his article, then, analyzes a “comprehensive set of indicators” that, taken in full, refute the pessimistic (from the Western perspective) assumptions regarding America’s relative decline. As Beckley notes, both countries are experiencing declines and improvements in various indices of national power, and the pessimism is unwarranted. He summarizes his findings as follows:
“The results are mixed, but the bulk of the evidence supports the alternative perspective. Over the last two decades, globalization and U.S. hegemonic burdens have expanded significantly, yet the United States has not declined; in fact it is now wealthier, more innovative, and more militarily powerful compared to China than it was in 1991.”
So, the question now arises regarding the merits of Beckley’s article. He is correct that both countries are experiencing, and will continue to experience, both positive and negative developments. Fears regarding China’s U.S. financial holdings are, in fact, greatly exaggerated by virtue of two factors. First, China holds scarcely more U.S. debt than Japan, an important U.S. ally and Chinese foe. China’s percentage of total U.S. debt isn’t catastrophic; total U.S. debt “owned” by foreign nations is over $6 trillion, with the size of the total U.S. debt exceeding $18 trillion. China’s estimated $1.4 trillion in U.S. holdings, then, isn’t that big a concern. Second, China is, whether it likes it or not – and it apparently does, given its continued purchases of U.S. holdings – inextricably linked to the United States economically. To suddenly “dump” its U.S. holdings would be counterproductive to its own interests. Its trade with the U.S. would suffer and the value of its own investments would decline considerably.
The big question is less economic in nature than military. The wise student of such matters ignores misleading indicators of military strength like percentages of GDP devoted to defense budgets and estimates of aggregate military spending by autocratic regimes with minimal transparency in such matters. In other words, we don’t know how much China spends on its military, as we didn’t know how much the former Soviet Union spent on its military. We can only estimate, and that’s a useless practice. What we can see with our eyes is what matters, and, in that respect, we have cause for concern. China is building a large, modern military that it calculates will be capable of denying the United States the freedom of movement we have enjoyed throughout Asia for the past century. It has publicly claimed sovereignty over the entirety of the South China Sea and the natural resources (like oil and gas) that region is presumed to contain, which has caused a great deal of consternation among its smaller, weaker neighbors like Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines.
China is also actively developing the capabilities to conduct large-scale amphibious assaults, a capability previously enjoyed solely by the United States. The probable target given China’s rhetoric and information gleaned from its military documents is Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province of China. The United States is committed by formal arrangement (the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act) to help Taiwan defend itself against an attack from across the straits separating mainland China from this small island of 24 million people. China considers the issue of Taiwan’s status an enormously high priority, which could lead to a war involving the United States if Taiwan’s native population takes certain steps to assert its independence. The region has been a flashpoint since the 1950s, and remains a potential one today.
China’s military development, acting in consort with its ambitions to emerge as a leading technological innovator (i.e., more advanced weapon systems) will pose an increasing threat to U.S. interests and alliance commitments in Asia. The size and aggregate capability of the U.S. Navy has been in a major state of decline over the past decade, with the number of warships in continuous decline and their replacement by a small number of more technologically-advanced ships hardly compensating for the fact that a big chunk of the planet remains covered in water and that the ability to have a naval presence in multiple regions simultaneously cannot be sustained.
China’s growth as an economic and military power is occurring at U.S. expense. Whether the U.S. will remain a global power, however, is a matter solely for the U.S. to decide. Beckley is correct in his assessments of relative power and in his conclusions that the United States and China are both prone to experiencing peaks and valleys in relative indicators of national power. What the United States is capable of, and what is willing to do, however, are two different things, and right now the U.S. status as a global power doesn’t look that great. The so-called “pivot” towards Asia trumpeted by the Obama Administration is without substance and constituted merely a rhetorical exercise that served to diplomatically undermine the U.S. role in the Middle East. Beckley’s assertion that “the status quo for the United States is pretty good: it does not face a hegemonic rival, and the trends favor continued U.S. dominance,” is probably overly-optimistic given the failure of the U.S. to take steps necessary to ensure such dominance. In fact, the argument could be made that the current administration is not enamored with the concept of U.S. dominance, and that a smaller U.S. “footprint” around the world is a good thing. Some of us, however, disagree.