China was mentioned only four times in Joe Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress, but it shadowed almost every line of the speech. “We’re in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century,” Biden said. His aides describe the president as preoccupied with the challenge from China. “It informs his approach to most major topics and the president regularly raises it in meetings, whether he is discussing foreign policy or electric bus batteries,” CNN’s Jeremy Diamond reported. “And aides say Biden believes it is a key test by which historians will judge his presidency.”
As Biden said to the nation from the well of the House of Representatives, the authoritarian President Xi Jinping is “deadly earnest” about China “becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world. He and others—autocrats—think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies.”
So this might be a useful moment to hear a contrary voice. In 2018, the Tufts University professor Michael Beckley published a richly detailed study of Chinese military and economic weaknesses. The book is titled Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower.
The book argues that China’s economic, financial, technological, and military strength is hugely exaggerated by crude and inaccurate statistics. Meanwhile, U.S. advantages are persistently underestimated. The claim that China will “overtake” the U.S. in any meaningful way is polemical and wrong—and wrong in ways that may mislead Americans into serious self-harming mistakes. Above all, Beckley pleads with readers not to focus on the headline numbers of gross domestic product. China may well surpass the United States as the largest economy on Earth by the 2030s. China was also almost certainly the largest economy on Earth in the 1830s. A big GDP did not make China a superpower then—and it will not make China a superpower now, or so Beckley contends.