06 September 2011

China’s S-Shaped Threat

Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, China’s S-Shaped Threat,” The Diplomat, 6 September 2011.

Analysts of international relations have focused lately on China’s potential challenges to the international system. But China’s greatest challenges may in fact be internal. The implications will be significant.

China is assumed by many to be destined to overtake the US as the world’s leading power. But history shows the dangers of extrapolating from today’s growth numbers.

According to the US National Intelligence Council (NIC), ‘China is poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country.’ China is already the world’s second largest economy, second largest energy importer, largest natural resource importer by volume, and largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. Indeed, following the S&P downgrading of the US credit rating to AA+, Beijing feels empowered to declare that it ‘has every right now to demand the United States to address its structural debt problems.’

However, despite its astute policy navigation, efforts to guide national development, and claims of exceptionalism, China isn’t immune to larger patterns of economics and history. And those patterns tell us that China faces costly internal and external challenges that will hinder its ability to avoid the S-Curve-shaped growth slowdown that so many previous great powers have experienced, and that so many observers believe the United States is undergoing today.

Where China is headed domestically and internationally has major implications across the board for virtually everyone on this planet. The country has risen at a rate beyond even its leaders’ expectations over the past three decades, and a power shift is afoot in the international system. The fully unipolar system that persisted from 1989 to roughly 2008 is no more. To many, this signals a clear power transition in which China is poised to overtake the United States as the world’s foremost power. Estimates emerge constantly as to when China’s economy will become larger than that of the United States, and it’s assumed that China’s diplomatic, information, and military aspects of national power will grow in proportion.

But many policymakers and economists question whether China’s current growth trajectory can be maintained in the face of clear structural challenges that include pollution, corruption, chronic diseases, water shortages, growing internal security spending, and an aging population—all factors that feed off of one another and exact increasingly large costs for the Chinese state and economy. …

For the full-length report on which this article is based, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “China’s S-Curve Trajectory: Structural factors will likely slow the growth of China’s economy and comprehensive national power,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 44 (15 August 2011).