China and the United States: comparison of aggregate national potentials

This post was published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.


MOSCOW, (BM) – The number of anti-Chinese words and deeds of the Donald Trump administration is multiplying at an increasing speed and, in accordance with the teachings of the classics, can jump into a new quality. The trenches of the Cold War are increasingly assuming the configuration of offensive bridgeheads. Experts and political scientists from the PRC, the United States and other interested countries are already frankly writing about this.

Even on the eve of the start of the trade war and the subsequent technological, informational and other tactical battles, experts from different countries began to predict a strategic confrontation not only between two countries, the United States and China, but two civilizations, American (Western) and Chinese (Eastern). At the same time, the coming conflict began to be likened to the “trap of Thucydides.”

Based on the experience of the rivalry of the powers of Ancient Greece, the historian Thucydides argued that wars for the primacy of the already held Sparta and the nascent Athens were inevitable. Through the prism of the theory of the ancient Greek scientist, a contemporary of Confucius, the inevitability of the American-Chinese collision was analyzed by the American political scientist Graham Allison, who, in fact, introduced the term “Thucydides’ trap” into circulation. He identified 16 major examples of the confrontation of established and emerging civilizations over 500 years, 12 of which actually ended in war.

Among these 12 is the confrontation between Germany and England, which already in the twentieth century was not going to voluntarily interrupt its 100-year-old world domination. Likewise, the Americans are not going to surrender their hegemonic status to the Chinese without a fight. A clear and immediate threat is emerging for China.

Several years ago, the popular Western political scientist John Mearsheimer also warned about the likelihood of a clash between America and China “edge against edge”. In The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, he wrote: “The United States will go very far to prevent China’s regional hegemony. The result will be intense security rivalry with serious potential for war. While nuclear weapons certainly stimulate the drive to avoid a major war, the Sino-American rivalry in Asia will take place in an environment that is more conducive to military confrontation than those experienced in Europe during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Both the geography and the distribution of power differ from that time and make war between China and the United States more likely than between the superpowers between 1945 and 1990. “

The books of Allison and Mearsheimer initiated a broad discussion of the possibility of a US-China conflict in world political science. A comparison of the potentials of the United States and China in terms of the main parameters of aggregate national power was also developed. This concept includes military forces, allies, economics, soft power, attractive ideology, etc.

Military component

The comparison usually starts with the Chinese military. There are enough of them to protect the territory and coastal waters of the Middle Kingdom, but they are just beginning to go beyond its limits. First of all, it is worth considering the difference in the financial capabilities of the PLA and the American armed forces. In 2020, China’s military spending reached 1.27 trillion yuan ($ 178.8 billion). This impressive amount, however, is only a quarter of the US military budget. The PLA has 2 million people, and the US military has 1.4 million.

It is generally accepted that the United States has a significant advantage in its nuclear arsenal, while Beijing keeps its parameters secret. The generally accepted numbers are as follows: the United States has 1,150 warheads, and China has 300-310. According to the Washington administration, an accelerated program of building up the PLA’s nuclear potential has been launched in recent months. New generations of nuclear warheads are being created.

But the main thing is that the PRC now has its own nuclear triad, says Vasily Kashin, a military expert from the RAS IFES. It consists of approximately 3,000 ballistic missiles, a flotilla of 6 nuclear submarines and the latest Hun-6N strategic bombers with air-to-ground missiles. Russian assistance made it possible to speed up the creation of a missile attack warning system (EWS). The system of commanding troops from a network of underground shelters is being improved.

The PLA missile “line” has developed rapidly in recent years and now includes practically all types of ballistic missiles of different ranges, including those with individual guidance and reentry warheads. China already possesses medium-range missiles with gliding hypersonic warheads.

The implementation of a comprehensive plan for the self-reinforcement of the Celestial Empire, which was launched in 2012 and calculated until 2049, called “The Chinese Dream” has accelerated changes in the PLA’s development strategy. One of the first decisions of Xi Jinping as chairman of the Military Council of the CPC Central Committee, in fact the commander-in-chief, was to reduce the number of military personnel by 300 thousand people. Instead, the re-configuration of the army, air force and navy has accelerated, with the latter two taking priority.

New types of armed forces were created – the Missile Forces and the Strategic Support Forces, responsible for cyberspace, space and electronic warfare. The strategic breadth and depth of the Chinese defense is expanding both on Earth and in the World Ocean and in outer space. The internal borders between the ground forces, the navy, the air force and space units are being overcome. They began to conduct strategic maneuvers with the participation of all types of troops, and more and more often with live firing.

For the United States, aircraft carrier groups deployed in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans remain an effective instrument for maintaining global hegemony. They serve as an effective tool for interfering in the affairs of countries of all continents, and control the vital transport arteries of China. Up to 90% of China’s foreign trade flows pass through the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. The response to the increasingly active actions of the US Navy in this area was the strengthening of the islands and atolls, the creation of a system of “unsinkable aircraft carriers” on them – a forward line of defense advanced into the Pacific Ocean.

At the shipyards of China, a modern ocean-going fleet is being built, the pace of building new ships is about twice as high as the American ones. There are already two aircraft carriers in service, two more have been laid. Nuclear submarines, long-range missile ships, and the world’s largest landing craft are leaving the stocks. China, unlike America, does not have a global network of 800 military bases in dozens of countries from which to “project power.” Chinese ships call at the ports of Pakistan and Sri Lanka. On the African coast, in Djibouti, the first logistics base was acquired for them. Chinese frigates are involved in international anti-piracy operations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Groups of warships make long-distance autonomous campaigns lasting 6-9 months, and conduct exercises even in the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas.

The transition to a global vision of strategic challenges and the concept of “active defense” in recent years has also been accompanied by the accelerated development of technology and technology for outer space and cyberspace. Space weapons allow you to shoot down enemy satellites. Large-scale cyberattacks have already become one of the main US charges against China. The informatization of the armed forces is becoming a priority in funding and research. However, even by introducing advanced cyber defense and space weapons systems, China is inferior to the United States in some parameters of future wars.

There is safety in numbers

In such a parameter of aggregate power as the presence of allies, America is clearly superior to China. The Americans have a powerful military alliance, NATO, which is already discussing extending its area of ​​responsibility to East Asia. Bilateral alliances (with Japan, South Korea, Australia, etc.) have been updated and are actively operating. Made with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, these and other treaties are being reoriented to China. It is on the territory of the allies that the deployment of American medium-range missiles is expected in the near future after the US withdraws from the INF Treaty.

Washington hopes to add new military alliances to the existing ones. The geostrategic concept of the Indo-Pacific region, which has been adopted, implies the connection of China, India and even Vietnam to the encirclement. Another strategy is designed to strengthen anti-Chinese sentiments in the elites of Southeast Asian countries – provoking conflicts in the South China Sea. Taiwan may become America’s most dangerous ally for China if independence is declared and the inevitable break in diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing. American naval and air bases and missile launchers of the MRBM, coupled with the tangible military potential of Taiwan itself, can become a mortal threat to the security of the Celestial Empire.

China itself in the field of geostrategy continues to adhere to the age-old traditions of the almighty “Middle State” and the Mao Tse Tung principle of “self-reliance.” Beijing, in principle, does not enter into allied ties with any country. The setback from the military alliance with the USSR in the 1950s and the unexpected collapse of the strategic partnership with America made an indelible impression on the political leadership of the PRC.

The “geostrategic loneliness” is partially offset by the “Belt and Road” strategy, as well as increasingly close ties with Russia. They are developing within the framework of “relations of strategic partnership” that do not have an international legal status and allied obligations. With the onset of the American Cold War, not only the military circles, but also the political leadership began to increase the level of mutual understanding and interaction with Moscow.

This was expressed, in particular, in the proclamation of a “new era” of these relations during the meeting of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in June 2019. The practical filling of the new wording was the soon adopted decision on our assistance to China in the creation of an early warning system. Another step was taken in July of the same year. Two Russian and two Chinese “strategists” in a single formation marched along a given route over the Japanese and East China Seas. These actions by the carriers of nuclear weapons became a logical continuation of efforts to coordinate strategic measures to counter US pressure on our countries.

Mobilization of the Celestial Empire

Mobilization abilities are rarely taken into account in calculating the total national power, although they are of key importance. Nature, in the guise of the coronavirus pandemic, before our eyes, gave the whole world, including China and America, an unexpected and severe test of strength. You don’t have to spend a lot of letters to determine the winner and the loser in these “conditions as close as possible to combat.”

The Chinese nation as a whole has shown a high degree of readiness for challenges, self-discipline, patriotism and self-sacrifice. The concentration of state, party and military power in the hands of Xi Jinping made it possible to urgently take decisive measures to isolate foci of infection, concentrate powerful medical resources, maintain order, minimize economic losses and restore the economy.

A decisive role in mobilization was played by the powerful and ramified apparatus of the ruling Communist Party, which is the supporting structure of state power and the economy of the Celestial Empire. The political leadership in Beijing and the regional authorities worked in concert. From the very beginning of the crisis, the PLA was involved, especially its specialized units. The army, security services and police acted in an adequate and coordinated manner. The latest technical means of collecting information and controlling the population were widely used.

America, on the other hand, showed a very weak mobilization readiness. The Trump administration was unable to quickly and correctly assess the scale of the threat to national security. Even belated action was thwarted by contradictions between the executive and legislative branches, disunity between the federal center and states, rivalry between political parties, and racial prejudice. 5 million coronavirus cases and 160 thousand deaths as of the beginning of August alone is a fiasco not only of the medical system (corresponding Chinese figures: 85 thousand cases, 4,600 deaths). The 30% drop in US GDP is a symptom of the fragility of the entire economy. Pogroms and other forms of street riots, the surrender of the security forces to provocateurs are a manifestation of the disunity of American society, its inability to mobilize.

Growth economics

China’s economy in 2004 was about half of the American economy, but in 2014, in terms of statistics, it was roughly equal to the American one. China’s GDP is now 60% of the American and 18% of the world (in purchasing power parity), for the Americans this figure is 15.5%. China ranked first in the world in terms of the size of the middle class – 400 million people. The PRC has become the main trading partner for most of the countries of the world, displacing America from the top of the pedestal. Even with a slowdown in growth rates over the past decade, the Chinese economy is still ahead of the American one (7–6% per year versus 2–1%).

The consequences of the coronavirus are so far unpredictable, but the results of the first half of 2020 bring to mind the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, when China was almost the only one to get out of the water and only added in development. For America, the forecasts are very disappointing. Even before the pandemic, the estimates of the Americans themselves suggested that China’s GDP by 2024 could be half that of the United States. The alarming economic dynamics for the United States, in fact, formed the basis of the first sketches of a strategy to contain China in the 2000s and became the root cause of the current Cold War.

From the point of view of the competition between the two economies, it is important that over the past 40 years China has become the “workshop of the world“, capable of producing anything from soft toys to aircraft carriers. The transfer of strategically important enterprises from civilian to military products is unlikely to be a problem if necessary. In this case, America will have very big problems – there is almost nothing to translate. The United States has lost strategically important industries, and Trump’s efforts to get them back are not supported by the all-powerful financial capital, and even if he wins a new election, it will take many years.

Another factor in calculating aggregate power is the reliability of the national currency and its place in the global financial system. At first glance, Americans have no cause for alarm. The share of the yuan in world trade is still only 2.3%. Of course, the yuan is far from the level of the dollar (72%) and the euro (19.9%). However, he feels more and more confident – with many countries, China concludes swap (exchange) agreements that provide for the use of national currencies in trade. We are witnessing the transformation of the Chinese currency into the world one and the beginning of the creation of its own international banking system, which in the future can become on a par with the American one.

The second economy and the main trading power in the world, China only in 2016 achieved the status of an international reserve currency for the yuan, which immediately took 10.92% in the IMF’s currency basket and overtook the Japanese yen and the British pound sterling. Until now, the Chinese state and private commercial structures keep huge profits from export abroad. In US government securities alone, Beijing has more than $ 1.1 trillion. China’s total foreign exchange reserves are estimated at $ 4 trillion (America has only 120 billion). It is believed that another $ 2-3 trillion in Western banks and offshores are held by Chinese private companies and individuals.

In recent years, new Chinese and international banks with the dominant capital of the PRC began to operate. On July 15, 2014, the BRICS New Development Bank was established with a capital of $ 100 billion, a significant part of which was contributed by China. On October 24, 2014, representatives of 21 Asian countries signed a memorandum on the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing. Its authorized capital immediately reached $ 100 billion, which is equal to two-thirds of the capital of the Asian Development Bank, controlled by the United States and Japan.

In 2020, the number of AIIB members has reached 100 countries, and the capital has also grown significantly. In the same year, just a couple of weeks later, and also at the initiative of China, the Silk Road Fund was created. Its capital amounted to $ 40 billion, and then it was significantly expanded. Those who are not blind can see that China has begun building a new global financial system.

The Cold War is quite capable, if not disrupt the forward movement of the Chinese economy, then slow it down. US trade sanctions and attacks on high-tech industries are certainly taking a toll. China’s GDP growth in 2019 amounted to 6.2%, while, according to the calculations of Chinese experts, as a result of the sanctions, it lost from 0.8% to 1% of GDP. This year, even the optimists do not raise the bar for forecasts of GDP growth above 2-3%. It is worth recalling that for 2012–2017, the growth rate averaged 7.2%, which is lower than the previous record decades, but significantly higher than the world average (2.6%). An amazingly stable social and political system called “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has withstood more than one crisis. There is every reason to believe that the consequences of the pandemic will slow down, but will not stop the impressive development of the Chinese economy.

“Wolf Warriors” lose to cowboys

Another component of the aggregate national power is the developed “soft power”. Global social networks like Facebook, informational concerns like CNN, the Hollywood dream factory and other elements of the American way of thinking have a tremendous impact on the tastes, habits, and mindsets of billions of people. Several generations of Chinese have perceived the United States as a shining castle on a hill. In 2018–2019, 272.4 thousand students from the PRC studied at American universities. About 300 million people study English.

China has started to build modern soft power relatively recently. Confucius Institutes, focused on teaching the basics of the Chinese language and culture, emerged in 2004. In 2018, there were already more than 500 of them in dozens of countries on all continents. By the end of 2020, according to Beijing’s plans, the number of Confucius institutions should increase to 1000.

Understanding the role of soft power, Chairman Xi Jinping told his propagandists to “tell Chinese stories well,” and they are trying very hard. In Beijing and large provincial centers, powerful concerns have been created from television stations, radio stations, and publishing houses. Their bureaus and branches operate in cities in America and Europe, including Moscow. Considerable funds are invested in radio and television broadcasting in foreign languages. Six global information channels operate around the clock, including in English and Russian. In terms of the number of foreign languages ​​of television broadcasting and foreign-language TV channels, China ranked first in the world. Whole factories are working for the production or dubbing into local languages ​​and even dialects for the countries of Africa and Asia, and for their reception via satellites, TVs are distributed to residents free of charge.

Enormous efforts are being made to promote Chinese cinema on the world market. Joint works are created with foreign studios, screen stars are invited for a lot of money. But on the way to competing with Hollywood, the Chinese have many obstacles. Among them are not only the language barrier, but also the tough policy of the CCP’s ideological departments. The imposition of strict internal rules of “Chinese-specific political correctness” on the external propaganda and export of “cultural industries” makes Chinese products less attractive and effective.

Despite linguistic and other objective difficulties, Chinese soft power is spreading throughout the world and increasingly worries the American authorities. Information resources of the PRC are regarded as special propaganda bodies in wartime. The Confucius institutions, which have been declared in the United States almost as espionage centers, are being closed. Chinese correspondents are being expelled and local employees of the PRC’s English-language media persecuted.

In turn, China is increasingly resorting to expulsion of journalists and other mirror responses, and embassy officials of all ranks and levels have joined in propaganda activities. They were ordered to infiltrate local social networks and be assertive in doing so. In the West, diplomats who are actively promoting propaganda have already been nicknamed “wolf warriors” by analogy with the heroes of the films, extremely popular in China, about an employee of a private security company, crushing the skulls of European mercenaries somewhere in Africa.

Rejection of liberal values ​​and norms of the American way of life has long been considered sufficient reason to punish those who disobey through economic sanctions and military intervention. Russia and China are called “revisionist states”, they are ranked among the main strategic rivals of the United States for independence in choosing the path of development. The Chinese do not impose their ideology on other peoples.

Long gone are the days of the Cultural Revolution, when diplomats and students handed astonished passers-by badges with the “reddest sun” or quotations in local languages. Now the PRC emphatically does not export its model of economy and politics, its way of life. At the same time, the obvious successes of the nation, which is guided by the theory of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” arouse understandable interest in it. This interest will grow with the improvement of the Chinese model and disillusionment with universal values ​​and other principles of liberalism.

As can be seen from this incomplete comparison, the potential of the established hegemon of the United States, at first glance, seems more impressive than that of the applicant, China. But this comparison largely depends on the calculation criteria.

Back in 2014, China’s leading economist Hu Angang made a comparison, taking only the parameters of brute strength, military capabilities and economic indicators as of the previous year. It turned out that China has already surpassed the United States in terms of the consolidated result of national power and its share in the world balance. The PRC in these calculations received 17.13%, and the USA – 15.25%. Experts make an important note – in the conditions of full mobilization of the state, its total power is calculated using a different methodology and amounts to 45-50% of its GDP (in China, it is 60% of America’s).

Now, in the cold phase of the competition, China does not have to try to overtake the United States in the number of aircraft carrier groups, squeeze the dollar out of international settlements, or fill the screens of cinemas and TVs with Chinese products. Being in a catch-up position, China can choose an asymmetric route to the goal.

So to say, not to build a copy of the Empire State Building, but to erect a multi-tiered “pagoda” with the most modern filling like the 422-meter Shanghai Jin Mao tower. China is able to achieve trade and economic leadership at first not in the global, but only in the Eurasian dimension. For example, the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative can lead to such a result. Other options for changing the balance of power are also possible.

China is not obliged to follow the logic of the ancient Greeks with their “Thucydides trap.” Their strategic thinking is influenced by Confucius and his principle “Among the four seas, all people are brothers.”


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