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Since there seems to be no end in sight to the rise in U.S.-China tensions, it’s especially interesting that two analyses of the Chinese economy and its future that challenge some widely held views on the subject have just appeared. Also noteworthy: They matter greatly for America’s perceived prospects for success, and one of them comes from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) itself.

More important still:  When you put them both together, the implications look positively startling – and encouraging – for America’s prospects in its economic and technological struggle with the People’s Republic.

The first apparently contrarian information comes from the International Monetary Fund in the form of this chart.

Chart compares GDP per capita in the U.S. and China

It shows recent and projected trends in U.S. and Chinese gross domestic product (GDP) per capita – that is, how much economic output each country turns out adjusted for population. This statistic is a valuable gauge of economic power and affluence because it reveals which national economies (or the economies of any other political unit) are a certain size simply because their populations are a certain size (big or small), and which economies are doing a particularly good or bad job generating goods and services given how many people are doing the producing.

For example: Let’s say you have one economy with a population of 100 and one with a population of 10,000, and the latter generates twice as much economic output than the former. The more populous country would have the larger economy in absolute terms, but its performance wouldn’t be seen as especially impressive because it took so many people to achieve this result – and indeed orders of magnitude more people than the smaller population economy.

Moreover, the latter economy would have much less wealth to distribute among its own people than the former, and therefore each of its citizens would be a good deal poorer than their counterparts in the smaller economy all else being equal.

But let’s not dismiss the bigger economy’s record altogether. For if the two ever fought a war – all else equal again – the bigger economy would have much more in the way of resources to build and equip a military, and keep it fighting, than the smaller.

Throughout modern history, the U.S. economy has greatly exceeded China’s by both measures, but because of the amazing progress made in recent decades by the People’s Republic and a slowdown in U.S. growth, China has been able to close the gap in terms of the size of the two economies. In fact, many forecasters (as made clear in the CNBC.com post containing the chart), believe that the Chinese will catch up before too long. As indicated above, the implications are sobering for Americans if the two countries come to blows, and by extension for any diplomatic jockeying they engage in – for relative military power always casts a political shadow.

China’s overall catch up has been so fast that you might think that the per capita GDP gap that’s been so large because China’s population has been so much bigger than America’s might start narrowing, too. But the chart makes clear that this hasn’t been the case at all. Indeed, the gap has continued to widen, and is projected to keep widening at least for the next four years.

And this finding and prediction suggests that the unquestionable surge in living standards that China has been able to foster due to its rapid growth – which has led so many U.S. and other non-Chinese businesses to pin their future hopes largely on selling to this huge and supposedly ever-burgeoning market – won’t even come close to American living standards for many years. So if the chart is right, the purchasing power growth of the typical Chinese will stall out at pretty low levels and disappoint many of these corporate hopes.

As a result, fears that a thorough “decoupling” of the two economies resulting mainly from U.S. concerns about over-dependence on an increasingly hostile country will kneecap many U.S.-based businesses and possibly the entire American economy could be seriously overblown, at least longer term. For if the chart is right, these expectations will be revealed as unrealistic no matter what course Washington follows – and even if China displayed any willingness (which it hasn’t) to permit foreign businesses to make any more inroads into its economy than are absolutely necessary.  (See here for the latest – and an unsually explicit – official Chinese designation of “complete” economic self-reliance as a goal.)  

All of which brings us to the second contrarian take on China that’s been expressed recently – and by the Communist Party. It’s a finding from the Deputy Director of a party-run research institute that the country’s “Consumption has already past the phase of rapid increase and will only rise slowly in the future.” And his opinion deserves big-time credibility because he clearly believed that he could express such a downbeat view without getting his head chopped off, or being sent for a few decades to a reeducation camp, or risking punishment for any immediate family and relatives.

In addition, however, Xu cited two specific, interlocking reasons for this judgement: an aging population and a shrinking workforce.  And although he seemingly didn’t mention this, if China will need to temper its plans to generate more economic growth through its own domestic consumption, it will need not only to rely more on the kinds of infrastructure investment he did cite.  It will also need to keep relying heavily on exports – which should ensure that the United States will retain plenty of leverage over the People’s Republic with its tariffs as long as the Biden administration decides to leave them in place. 

None of this means that former President Trump was right in claiming that trade wars are “easy to win,” or that maintaining satisfactory technological superiority will be a piece of cake, either, or that generally the United States can stop worrying so much about China threats on these scores.  But it does mean that if American leaders have the will to prevail – and to advance and safeguard U.S. interests adequately – they’ll have plenty of wallet to use.