China’s premature riseChina’s ascent is an exception in view of the trajectory of traditional global powers. Modern global powers maintained per capita incomes close to the highest levels. That was the case with Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. China joined the top ranks because it had the world’s largest population regardless of very low individual incomes. About 20 percent of the global population is Chinese, nearly four more than the American share. In terms of per capita income, China is only within the 70th rank of 190 countries. If China becomes a superpower, it will be unprecedented in modern civilization: an underdeveloped state commanding leadership in global affairs.
There are several reasons many think China cannot beat the U.S. to become the world’s superpower. The first is its demographic weakness: China has a thinning and aging population. According to a United Nations report, China’s population would rise by 20 million by 2050 whereas America’s would surge by 80 million. By 2050, the share of its population aged 65 years or older would be 27 percent, higher than 20 percent in the United States. Aging will slow its growth, and by 2030, when China’s population starts to thin, the two economies would more or less grow at similar rates. Japan’s population peaked when per capita incomes were over $40,000 and South Korea’s will peak at $30,000. But China’s population would start shrinking before that level hits $10,000 or $20,000. It is therefore highly unlikely to achieve $30,000 per capita income level. China’s economy will outpace the U.S.’s only very briefly.
Second, many are doubtful of China’s place in the so-called fourth industrial revolution. As the British and Americans have proved, a country becomes a global power when it creates life-changing innovations such as the first industrial revolution led by steam, the second by electricity, and the third by computers. The fourth industrial revolution not only demands brain power, but also an environment encouraging creativity and liberalism for experiments and trials. Such converging innovations cannot be bred in a rigid political system, or where the economy is government-led, or where there is pervasive corruption. Those three descriptions apply to China. Moreover, its leader Xi Jinping is more engrossed in strengthening his personal power than promoting any kind of democracy or freedom in his society.
Third, China lacks universal values, culture, and systems that it can sell overseas. Hard economic and defense power is not the only strength behind a superpower. It must have a culture and system the people around the world envy and would like to emulate. It is highly doubtful that China can present a system more workable and universal than democracy and a market economy of the kind you see in Britain and America. Chinese values won’t find a place in the world. Its emotional response over its waning influence in Hong Kong and Taiwan, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and its economic retaliations against South Korea for its decision to install a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system suggests its perspective remains in the 19th century. China defends its moves as being in the national interest, but it can’t be denied they hurt its reputation and image.
China has been infatuated with the aspiration to outpace the U.S. from around 2008. The crouching tiger suddenly jumped when the world’s biggest economy teetered on the brink of a global financial meltdown. It wielded its muscles and rhetoric to exercise assertiveness and influence. Although the financial crisis underscored weakness in the U.S. economy and Donald Trump’s victory demonstrated some mighty flaws in the democratic system, the U.S. system still prevails. Unlike the UK, which lost its power with its colonies, the U.S. will likely enjoy predominance longer than Britain thanks to its rich natural and technological resources.
A small bisected nation living amongst threatening powers with a dream of unification must be able to predict the global order of many years or decades later. Weighing the U.S. and China is a luxury we cannot afford. We must break out of the old dichotomy and expand our mindset and diplomatic realm to make it more multi-faceted in consideration of the economy, security, environment, and culture. We must be able to say no if Beijing demands us to choose between it and Washington and rethink the installation of the Thaad battery.
The row over Thaad suggests how short-sighted our diplomatic and North Korean policy has been. The new administration must bear the mistakes of past governments. It must defend the traditional alliance with the U.S.
At the same time, we must be shrewder in responding to the muscle-flexing of Beijing. This goes not only for policy on the economy, but also unification. We can compromise by limiting radar surveillance on the Thaad battery or send it home if North Korea ensures denuclearization.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 18, Page 35
*The author is an economics professor at Seoul National University.