3 reasons why China isn't overtaking the US

While China’s economy grows at 9 percent per year, the US reels from economic recession and political paralysis. US opinion polls consistently show that majorities of Americans believe China is the world’s dominant economic power. And according to the Pew Research Center, pluralities in 15 out of 22 countries believe that China will overtake the US as the world’s superpower.

But this widespread view is wrong, says Michael Beckley, of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. It’s a fabrication based on sloppy analysis and outdated conceptions of national power. Mr. Beckley argues that people who believe that China is overtaking the US make at least one of the following three mistakes.

1. They confuse growth rates with total growth

REUTERS/Carlos Barria
An employee works at a textile factory in Yiwu, Zhejiang province. China's factory sector shrank in November for the first time in nearly three years.

Since 1991, China’s per capita income grew 15 percent annually, and its military spending rose 10 percent annually. By contrast, America’s per capita income and military spending grew at annual rates of 4 percent and 2 percent respectively. Yes, 15 is greater than 4, and 10 is greater than 2. What could be simpler?

But growth rates are not comparable. The average Chinese income in 2010 was $7,500. Fifteen percent of $7,500 is actually less money than 4 percent of $47,000, the average American income that year. Despite China’s higher growth rates, the average Chinese citizen is $17,000 poorer compared with the average American today than he was in 1991.

Over the same time period, Chinese military spending declined by $140 billion relative to America’s, even when excluding funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. China’s growth rates are high because its starting point was low. China is rising, but it is not catching up.

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