12 June 2007

Will China overtake America?

There is a superb debate on this perennial issue on Gideon Rachman's brilliant blog. Rachman is the chief foreign affairs commentator of The Financial Times and served as the Asia correspondent in the early 90s, so he has got a firm grip of the subject.

"The reason that China will eventually be the world's largest economy is that its population is roughly four times that of the United States. Predictions that Japan would over-take the US, popular in the late 1980s, were always implausible. The difference in population size would have meant that the average Japanese would have had to become more than twice as rich as the average American for Japan to surpass America – and that was never going to happen.

By contrast, if you want to argue that China will never overtake the US, you would have to believe that China cannot achieve a GDP-per-capita of just 25% of American levels. And yet there are several examples of Asian “tiger economies” that have already got to that level and well past it – Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore (the latter, admittedly a micro-state) - some of them managing tricky transitions from authoritarianism to democracy, without stopping growth.

My colleague Martin Wolf points out that if China were to achieve the GDP-per-capita levels of Portugal – the poorest country in western Europe – its overall GDP will be larger than that of the US and the European Union combined."

So it looks inevitable that the West will cease to dominate the world; in economic and consequently in military terms (in line with Niall Ferguson's empire theory). The real question is how much it will matter to an ordinary European or American. How much will the Chinese regime and society have changed by that time? How much will the Chinese attitude towards Taiwan have changed by the time the US will no longer be able (or willing) to guarantee its independence?

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