Predictions that China will soon overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy are now commonplace (see, e.g. here) – and understandably so given how much faster than America the People’s Republic has been growing in recent decades. As a result, I was startled six weeks ago when I came across data punching lots of holes in this forecast, and called attention to them in this post.
Still, as I explained, the implications were mainly economic – indicating that Americans and their businesses had much less to fear than widely supposed from a substantial U.S. decoupling from China because the Chinese people’s overall purchasing power would be hard-pressed to keep growing nearly as fast as generally assumed. That was because China’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita – the amount of wealth it was creating for each of its huge, one billion-plus population – was growing at distinctly unimpressive levels. In fact, it was
In terms of overall national power, however, and China’s consequent ability to threaten American national security, I noted that plenty of reasons for worry remained – because the narrowing of the U.S.-China gap in terms of the actual sizes of their economies meant that China’s ability to pour resources into its military and its security-related tech industries continued to threaten to surpass America’s.
But this week, new figures – on China’s population – have called these concerns into question, too, at least over the long run.
The data – China’s own new census – revealed that the People’s Republic’s population growth has slowed to a crawl. The numbers bested some forecasts – which anticipated Beijing reporting an actual population decline. But because this near-population stagnation has resulted largely from trends unlikely to be reversed any time soon (mainly the regime’s draconian multi-decade population control policies and the major rise in living standards that China unquestionably has achieved), they also add to the evidence that the People’s Republic is heading into a period of long-term population shrinkage. In turn, this fall-off – coupled with the weak China per capita GDP growth mentioned above – indicates that its world’s biggest economy status could be surprisingly short-lived.
The math underlying this analysis is pretty simple – and since the time frames are long, the specific results should by no means be taken literally. But the story they tell differs so dramatically from the current conventional wisdom, and because one of the key assumptions looks conservative, they deserve to be taken seriously.
Let’s begin with those per capita GDP figures. According to the World Bank, in 2019, it was $65,298 for the United States, and $10,217 for China. And let’s look at recent population predictions that have attracted considerable attention. They come from the prominent medical journal The Lancet, and peg the U.S. population growing by some three percent between 2017 and 2100, and hitting 335.81 million, but China’s population falling during the same period to just 732.89 million – a nosedive of nearly 50 percent.
That’s stunning enough by itself, but take a look at what these numbers would do to the two countries’ GDPs. Let’s assume that America’s GDP per capita in 2100 stays at its 2019 level of $65,298. Multiply that by the 335.81 million U.S. population, and you get an economy whose total output is $21.93 trillion (before accounting for inflation). If China’s GDP per capita stays the same, this calculation produces a GDP for the People’s Republic of just $7.48 trillion before inflation That is, its economy would be just a third the size of America’s. Moreover, this means that the economy gap will have doubled, since China’s $14.280 trillion GDP as of 2019 was two-thirds the size of America’s $21.433 trillion (again, according to the World Bank).
Granted any number of non-economic and economic developments over the next eight decades could make this scenario completely meaningless. But leaving out those utter unknowables, it’s significsnt that one plausible knowable suggests that the U.S.-China economy gap may become even bigger in 2100. And that’s the fact that the data I cited in March (from the International Monetary Fund) show that since 1980, that U.S.-China per capita GDP gap has widened substantially. If that trend continues (as opposed to per capita GDP differences staying exactly where they are now, as my scenario assumes), then by the turn of the next century, the United States would stand even further ahead of China. In principle, the military potential gap would widen strongly as well.
And just as crucial to keep in mind: If China’s population plummets by nearly half by 2100, big time decline will have to have begun long before, which translates into a relatively brief spell of Chinese superiority in terms of that military potential. Further, this Chinese edge may be even more fleeting than these dry numbers indicate, since the United States by all accounts maintains Number One in that regard now, and military potential doesn’t turn into military strength overnight.
Nonetheless, there’s still a worrisome paradox to keep in mind. Precisely because China’s long-term prospects aren’t terrific, some leading strategists (see, e.g., here and here) argue that Beijing will be sorely tempted to capitalize on its relative gains to date and momentum to achieve high priority goals in the short-term – like taking over Taiwan.
I personally have no idea. And I’m the last person to preach complacency in China policy. In fact, I’m glad to see that the American political system has begun wakening to the dangers posed by China’s economic, technological, and military advances. But excessive pessimism has never led to any victories in any kind of struggle or competition, either, and hopefully The Lancet data will reinforce U.S. leaders’ confidence that if success in handling China isn’t guaranteed, it’s entirely achievable.