The coronavirus pandemic seems to cement the notion that China is replacing the United States as the world’s premier economic superpower.
Should we have expected anything else? After all, as the conventional wisdom goes, the Chinese make everything; Americans just pack the stuff into Amazon boxes. Beijing plays the long game; we can’t think beyond the next election or quarterly earnings report. China cracked down hard to grapple with the coronavirus and now appears to be on the mend; the U.S. is still languishing, as the death toll mounts and anti-racism protests grip the country.
Well, maybe not: With China, things aren’t always what they seem. Many apparent Chinese strengths—including education, manufacturing, and technology—aren’t quite as strong as many Americans believe. And neither are China’s chances of surpassing the U.S., something policy makers and pundits in Washington should keep in mind as they fret over Beijing’s ostensibly growing might.
China’s rise has often been presented as a historical inevitability: A decadent America, stretched to the breaking point by its global commitments, and weary of its superpower burdens, will give way to the more focused, organized, and motivated up-and-comer. Pax Americana will join Pax Britannica and Pax Romana in the dustbin of history. Ray Dalio, the founder of the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, has placed China’s emergence within a long-established cycle of global power, comparing its ascent today to the rise of Britain after the Industrial Revolution, and the Dutch Republic, which created a seaborne empire in the 17th century.