The outcome of the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China may well define the rest of the 21st century. It is a multi-layered strategic battle for power and influence—manifested in economic power, technological prowess and military capabilities. And the contrast of ideas of liberal democracy and free markets on the one hand, and a state-managed economy coupled with and intense nationalism.
The competition is fierce as the reigning superpower, the United States, faces many challenges. Political dysfunction, economic disparities, social divisions, and neo-fascist tendencies are on the rise. It undermines and threatens the liberal democratic system. Some Americans are viewing the core democratic values of liberty, equality and justice as a burden. Internationally, the debacle in Afghanistan showed the limits of American global power.
In comparison, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, is in absolute control. China’s authoritarian model has created an entrepreneurial culture. It is a successful model that thrives on technological and economic innovation. But the model ruthlessly suppresses political dissent.
To be sure, China has made rapid strides in the economic, military, and technological fields. China has made wealth creation its national priority. It has strived to raise standards of living and maximize savings and investments. An increase in per capita national income from about $250 in 1980 to over $10,000 in 2020 reflects China’s phenomenal economic success. It is still considerably behind the US’s nearly $64,000.
It’s no surprise that China has left behind its closest “big emerging market” competitors, such as Brazil and India, in the last twenty years. It is the ability to marshal substantial economic resources to achieve specific goals that differentiate China from its competitors
China has pulled around 800 million out of absolute poverty, and it could overtake the US as the world’s largest economy in 2036. Also, China, a self-professed advocate of peaceful non-interference, doesn’t have the massive costs of playing global policeman, unlike the United States.
Increasingly, China is using its growing economic power to gain greater military strength and geopolitical weight. Yet, China won’t represent a real strategic threat to the United States for several decades. For one, the US has an enormous strategic nuclear advantage – its nuclear warheads outnumber China’s by a substantial margin.
So far, China has avoided the costly mistake of over-militarization made by the former Soviet Union—whereby a large defense budget undermined other aspects of society, weakening national power. China spends far less than the US spends on defense while supporting a much larger military force.
It’s no surprise that China has left behind its closest “big emerging market” competitors, such as Brazil and India, in the last twenty years. It is the ability to marshal substantial economic resources to achieve specific goals that differentiate China from its competitors. It is an advantage enjoyed by authoritarian states who do not have to worry about the checks and balances inherent in democracies.
Due to its economic success, China has touted its illiberal concepts of political and economic order as superior to so-called Western models. It seeks to export the Chinese model to the developing world as an alternative to failing liberal democracy. It is music to the ears of would-be authoritarians around the globe fed up with democratic procedures and norms, free and fair elections, and accountability under the rule of law.
The fact is that in the short-term, the US and its powerful allies have the economic and military might to contain the Chinese challenge
So is it game, set and match for China? Can China win the contest between the two hostile ideologies and systems of government? Is the Chinese model an attractive alternative to liberal democracy for other countries to emulate to speed up their development?
Not so because China’s main weakness (and that of most authoritarian states) is its closed and top-heavy political system. While the system can mobilize resources with minimal interference from civil society, it lacks popular consent and is susceptible to internal revolt.
As China modernizes, the authoritarian system could face a challenge from the natural aspirations of its people. At some point, economic prosperity alone without political rights might become unacceptable. When that happens, the government will have to choose between harsh repression and a more open society that could threaten the carefully constructed political order.
The fact is that in the short-term, the US and its powerful allies have the economic and military might to contain the Chinese challenge. But in the longer term, a revitalized United States democracy by its example is the main bulwark against global authoritarianism. Of course, the best outcome is for the United States and China to learn to get along. For this to happen, mutual suspicions about alleged Chinese expansionism and the US’s desire to seek regime change in China have to end.
Saad Hafiz is an analyst and commentator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.