But size is not power. After all, China was the world’s largest economy during its “century of humiliation” when it was ripped apart by Western powers and Japan. Britain, by contrast, ruled a quarter of the globe in the 19th century but was never, even at its peak, the largest economy. In fact, Britain’s GDP was half the size of China’s and far smaller than India’s when it invaded and subjugated both nations.
Of course, China’s size makes it an important player on transnational issues, particularly climate change and trade. Moreover, China’s military can threaten the United States without catching up, compensating for technological inferiority with asymmetric strategies and a greater willingness to take risks and bear casualties.
But China is not an emerging superpower in the mold of the Soviet Union, nor is it a great power like early-twentieth century Germany. It is a large developing country and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Americans, therefore, should not fear China. But neither should they shy away from competing with this rising power for influence in Asia.
Michael Beckley is a research fellow in the International Security Program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. This article is based on a study in International Security, a quarterly journal of international affairs.