America and the Rise of the Chinese Century

Photograph Source: The White House from Washington, DC – Public Domain

News of America’s global supremacy and victory as well as demise are often premature.  In 1942 journalist Henry Luce described the coming years as the American Century.  And it looked like he was right despite some setbacks.  Yet coming out of the coronavirus and the Trump presidency, this time maybe the end of the American Century is near and the emergence of the Chinese Century is here.

We will bury you!” This was a famous claim made in 1956 by USSR Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev.  It did not happen.  The USA went on to win the Cold War and after 1991 with the breakup of the  Soviet Union it appeared that America was the sole surviving super power and would dominate the world politically, economically, and militarily.  Francis Fukuyama boldly pronounced in a 1989 article the end of history whereby the USA had emerged as the last surviving superpower and that there was no competing supernarrative to America’s version of democratic neo-liberal capitalism.

It appears 30 years later no one told the Peoples’ Republic of China this.

The world that the USA faces today under President Trump is very different from the world of 1945 (after WWII or the Great War), 1956, or even 1991.  Trump’s approach to foreign policy in terms of his disdain for multi-lateral agreements such as NATO, his downplaying of diplomacy, and his rejection of pursuing human rights, democracy, and a turn against immigration have diminished the US politically.  The America First approach to the world has meant a retreat in the US from the global stage, hurting the ability of the country to pursue its foreign policy objectives.

This retreat has created a void potentially to be filled by China.   Moreover, the world in 2020 is different from 1945, 1956, or 1991 when the US economy was by far the largest in the world.

In 1945 the US GDP was four times larger than the next closest country with about 40% of the world GDP.  Even in 1960 the US GDP was 40% of the world.  No one else was close. Today in 2020 the US GDP is 14.9% of the world GDP, in 2024 it will be just 13.8%.  China’s GDP in 2020 is 19.2% of the world and in 2024 it will be 21.4%.  The European Union in 2020 is 15.8% of the global GDP.  The US just does not have the global economic dominance and soon perhaps China will.

Presently the US still dominates the world in its military budget, but China is growing and there are questions about America’s willingness to use military force, diplomacy,  or even honor treaty obligations such as NATO.  China and the US are now rivals, and it is unlikely that this changes with the 2020 American elections.  These two countries are locked in a new Cold War.  It is a war that will look different from the USSR/USA one, but still America and China are adversaries more than friends.

In effect, with or without Trump as president, the US is at a global turning point in terms of its status in the world.  Its handling of the coronavirus has further eroded confidence in America as it has shown its inability and unwillingness to be a global leader and addressing the problem.  Cutting funding to the World Health Organization is merely one sign of the loss  of leadership.

All this opens a window, this time for a rival such as China to transform the American Century into the coming China Century.  This time the communists might win the new Cold War.   And it appears that there is little sign that Trump is capable or prepared to confront this challenge.

Trump’s verbal attacks on China and blaming it for the coronavirus are not productive but no surprise.  Four years ago, he ran against immigrants and foreign countries and in favor of a brand of ultra-nationalism.  His recent attacks on China fit into that rhetoric.  In addition, blaming China for the coronavirus problem in the US is consistent with a pattern of shifting blame to other nations or people for his failures.  China is the scapegoat for his mistakes, merely a distraction.

Trump fails to realize that the US needs China and vice versa.  China is a source of inexpensive consumer and other goods the US wants, as well as a source of credit.   Trade with China has mostly been mutually beneficial.  This rhetoric does not help the US but it might help Trump personally with his political base.

The best-case scenario for US-China relations is one of mutual economic dependence.  Making the two economically dependent on one another helps to ensure the two share many interests and it reduces the likelihood that one would jeopardize a relationship that could lead to war or serious economic damage to both economies. Think of the old Cold War containment policy with economic interdependence.  At some point the US economy will be smaller than China’s and the time is now for the US to forge an interdependence to prevent Chinese dominance.

Trump cannot change his rhetoric toward China.  Attacking China benefits him politically with his base and is consistent with blaming immigrants or others for the US or his personal problems.  He is struck with his rhetoric and politics.  If Trump were re-elected do not look to see a change. Trump is not the type to shift from appealing to his base and China will economically be even more of a perceived threat to the US as its economy grows again and the US stagnates.

As much as Trump wants to make America great again, his policies are not helping and it is also not clear that  he can do much to reverse a trend even if he wants.  America is 78  years into its Century, it may be coming to its close soon.


David Schultz, Professor in the Department of Political Science at Hamline University and editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE). His latest book is Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.