Thoughts On China's Rise

by Conor Friedersdorf

I see Ezra Klein's point when he writes this:

A decent future includes China's GDP passing ours. They have many, many more people than we do. It's bad for both us and them if the country stays poor. A world in which China becomes rich enough to buy from us and educated enough to invent things that improve our lives is a better world than one in which they merely become competitive enough to take low-wage jobs from us -- and that's to say nothing of the welfare of the Chinese themselves...

In the best global economy we can imagine, the countries with the largest GDP are the countries with the most people. That's not America. And that's okay. We want America to have the most innovative and dynamic economy in the world, and we want living in America to be better than living anywhere else. But we don't want everywhere else to remain poor. We can't want that.

Still, I think he's fallen prey to ahistorical, pollyanna-ish thinking. In 1939, the USSR had more people in it than the United States. In the decades that followed, was it a good thing or a bad thing that the USA retained the biggest economy? By Ezra's logic, it was a bad thing. I'm not suggesting the post-war USSR and contemporary China are analogous – just that the geopolitical features of a country are factors to consider when deciding whether to hope for its economic might to surpass our own.

If China has a peaceful rise to world's biggest economy and doesn't export its creepy brand of authoritarianism elsewhere as a consequence of its supremacy, then sure, I'm with Ezra. But we won't know for a long time if that's what is going to happen – and if China being the biggest dog means that it'll subsume Korea, Tawain and Japan three or four decades from now, I can't help but think that the world would be better off if the United States (or hey, India) ended up on top.

Ezra continues:

...perhaps it's better to think of it in terms of Britain rather than China. Was the economic rise of the United States, in the end, bad for Britain? Or France? I don't think so. We've invented a host of products, medicines and technologies that have made their lives immeasurably better, not to mention measurably longer. We're a huge and important trading partner for all of those countries. They're no longer even arguably No. 1, it's true. But they're better off for it.

Perhaps it is better to think of it that way – or perhaps it's better to ask if the rise of Germany in the end proved bad for Britain or France or Poland, or if the rise of the United States proved beneficial to Mexico (maybe!) or Columbia... or if the rise of the USSR proved beneficial to its neighbors. Don't get me wrong. We should trade with China, maintain good relations, and create incentives for a peaceful rise, insofar as it's within our control.

But even perfect geopolitical gamesmanship on our part is no guarantee of a huge rising power's future intentions, as all of world history demonstrates. It isn't callous to be wary of China's rise – it is prudent, and perfectly consistent with earnestly wanting always improving lives for the Chinese people.