China as the World’s Largest Economy


The news that China will displace the U.S. as the world’s largest economy this year is big news. For economists who follow these measurements, the tectonic shift likely occurred a few years ago. But now the World Bank is making it official, so journalists and others who opine on world affairs will have to take this into account. And if they do so, they will find that this is a very big deal indeed.

What does it mean? First, the technicalities: the comparison is made on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis, which means that it takes into account the differing prices in the two countries. So, if a dollar is worth 6.3 renminbi today on the foreign exchange market, it may be that 6.3 renminbi can buy a lot more in China than one dollar can buy in the U.S. The PPP comparison adjusts for that; that is why China’s economy is much bigger than the measure that you have most commonly seen in the media, which simply converts China’s GDP to dollars at the official exchange rate.

The PPP measure is a better comparison for many purposes. For example, take military spending: the money that China needs to build a fighter jet or pay military personnel is a lot less than the equivalent in dollars that the U.S. has to pay for the same goods and services. This means that China has a bigger economy than that of the U.S., for purposes of military spending. And in a decade, the Chinese economy will most likely be about 60 percent bigger than the U.S. economy.

President Obama has just returned from a trip to Asia where he was criticized for not being “tougher” with China. However, Americans may want to consider whether “containing” China with a “pivot” to Asia is an affordable proposition. When the U.S. had an arms race with the Soviet Union, the Soviet economy was maybe one-quarter the size of ours. We have not experienced an arms race with a country whose economy is bigger than ours, and whose economic size advantage is growing rapidly. Are Americans prepared to give up Social Security or Medicare in order to maintain U.S. military supremacy in Asia? To ask this question is to answer it.

Fortunately, such an arms race is not necessary. China is a rising power, but the government does not seem to be interested in building an empire. Unlike the United States, which has hundreds of military bases throughout the globe, China doesn’t have any. The Chinese government seems to be very focused on economic growth; trying to become a developed country as soon as it can. Since China has 1.3 billion people, having an economy the size of the U.S. means that average living standards are less than one-fourth of ours. They have a long way to go to become a rich country.

Of course, just because an arms race is unnecessary or unwinnable doesn’t mean it can’t get started. The Washington foreign policy establishment is much accustomed to the authority, prestige, and privilege of being the overwhelmingly dominant power on the planet. And as we saw during the eastward expansion of NATO in the 1990s – now coming back to haunt us in a new Cold War with Russia – there are politically powerful military contractors that can also have a voice in U.S. foreign and military policy.

The American people, according to polling data, are of another point of view. They are largely tired of unnecessary wars and mostly sympathetic to President Obama’sresponse to critics while in the Philippines: “Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force, after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget?” he asked. It is arguable that the only reason our government is able to maintain an imperial foreign policy is that so few Americans serve in the military and pay the ultimate price for it.

Still, there is a powerful ideology of American exceptionalism and a widespread belief that if the United States does not run the world, somebody worse – possibly China – will. The fact that the U.S. and its European allies still have more democratic societies with more developed rule of law than most middle-income countries – despite thesetbacks of the past decade – reinforces this notion that the world will be worse off if the U.S. loses power and influence.

But the U.S. lost most of its influence in Latin America over the past 15 years, and the region has done quite well, with a sharp reduction in poverty for the first time in decades. The Washington-based International Monetary Fund has also lost most of its influence over the middle-income countries of the world, and these have also done remarkably better in the 2000s.

In the 18th century, those who opposed democratic revolutions like that of the United States had dystopian visions of governance without monarchy. So, too, our foreign policy establishment cannot imagine a multi-polar world where the U.S. and its allies must negotiate more and give orders less often. But economic trends are making this reality inevitable, and Americans should embrace it. Whatever the internal political systems of the countries whose representation in the international arena will increase, the end result is likely to be more democratic governance at the international level, with a greater rule of international law, fewer wars, and more social and economic progress.

Mark Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.

This essay originally ran in the Guardian.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of the forthcoming book Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Weekend Edition
October 9-11, 2015
David Price – Roberto J. González
The Use and Abuse of Culture (and Children): The Human Terrain System’s Rationalization of Pedophilia in Afghanistan
Mike Whitney
Putin’s “Endgame” in Syria
Jason Hribal
The Tilikum Effect and the Downfall of SeaWorld
Gary Leupp
The Six Most Disastrous Interventions of the 21st Century
Andrew Levine
In Syria, Obama is Playing a Losing Game
Louis Proyect
The End of Academic Freedom in America: the Case of Steven Salaita
Rob Urie
Democrats, Neoliberalism and the TPP
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
The Bully Recalibrates: U.S. Signals Policy Shift in Syria
Brian Cloughley
Hospital Slaughter and the US/NATO Propaganda Machine
Paul Street
Hope in Abandonment: Cuba, Detroit, and Earth-Scientific Socialism
John Walsh
For Vietnam: Artemisinin From China, Agent Orange From America
John Wight
No Moral High Ground for the West on Syria
Robert Fantina
Canadian Universities vs. Israeli Apartheid
Conn Hallinan
Portugal: Europe’s Left Batting 1000
John Feffer
Mouths Wide Shut: Obama’s War on Whistleblowers
Paul Craig Roberts
The Impulsiveness of US Power
Ron Jacobs
The Murderer as American Hero
Alex Nunns
“A Movement Looking for a Home”: the Meaning of Jeremy Corbyn
Philippe Marlière
Class Struggle at Air France
Binoy Kampmark
Waiting in Vain for Moderation: Syria, Russia and Washington’s Problem
Paul Edwards
Empire of Disaster
Xanthe Hall
Nuclear Madness: NATO’s WMD ‘Sharing’ Must End
Margaret Knapke
These Salvadoran Women Went to Prison for Suffering Miscarriages
Uri Avnery
Abbas: the Leader Without Glory
Halima Hatimy
#BlackLivesMatter: Black Liberation or Black Liberal Distraction?
Michael Brenner
Kissinger Revisited
Cesar Chelala
The Perverse Rise of Killer Robots
Halyna Mokrushyna
On Ukraine’s ‘Incorrect’ Past
Jason Cone
Even Wars Have Rules: a Fact Sheet on the Bombing of Kunduz Hospital
Walter Brasch
Mass Murders are Good for Business
William Hadfield
Sophistry Rising: the Refugee Debate in Germany
Christopher Brauchli
Why the NRA Profits From Mass Shootings
Hadi Kobaysi
How The US Uses (Takfiri) Extremists
Pete Dolack
There is Still Time to Defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Marc Norton
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Andre Vltchek
Stop Millions of Western Immigrants!
David Rosen
If Donald Dump Was President
Dave Lindorff
America’s Latest War Crime
Ann Garrison
Sankarist Spirit Resurges in Burkina Faso
Franklin Lamb
Official Investigation Needed After Afghan Hospital Bombing
Linn Washington Jr.
Wrongs In Wine-Land
Ronald Bleier
Am I Drinking Enough Water? Sneezing’s A Clue
Charles R. Larson
Prelude to the Spanish Civil War: Eduard Mendoza’s “An Englishman in Madrid”
David Yearsley
Papal Pop and Circumstance
Christopher Washburn
Skeptik’s Lexicon