I appreciate Michael Beckley’s response to a piece I wrote recently about China. I think Beckley’s International Security article offers a useful corrective to an alarmist declinist perspective and has deservedly generated much debate. But it still seems pretty clear to me that China has indeed been catching up with the United States over the past decade.

Let me be clear where I think we disagree. Beckley argues that we differ in our definitions of “decline.” But I didn’t mention “decline” at all in my post (other than in quotations of others) and for a good reason. The U.S. is perfectly capable of causing its own decline. It doesn’t need China for that. I am not saying that the U.S. currently is on a path to decline. All I claim is that one should not define decline simply by looking at relative capabilities or differences in capabilities with one other country.

My issue was with Beckley’s claim that contrary to popular perception, China is not “catching up” with the United States. Second (and perhaps more importantly) I took issue with the way he defined the consequences of a conclusion that China is indeed catching up.

The first point is mostly about measurement. One point that I made in my post and that Beckley does not respond to is that regardless of one’s preferred measure, the data for the 2000s are pretty clear on this (see below). Measured in PPP terms, the mean income of a Chinese person increased by $4149 whereas the mean American income increased by $2760. The ratio of Chinese GDP per capita to U.S. GDP per capita doubled from .08 to .16 in this period. So yes, the average Chinese is still a lot poorer than the average American but China is catching up. There is no way of knowing whether this trend will continue beyond the current financial crisis. Yet, the data for the past decade are pretty clear.

It would of course be silly to claim, as Beckley suggests my argument implies, that every country with higher growth rates than the US is catching up in relative power terms. It would be just as silly, as Dan Nexon suggests Beckley’s argument implies, to suggest that the US should be worried about Luxembourg because it has a higher GDP per capita than the US (to be fair, Beckley recognizes this in his article). Obviously the overall size of the economy plays a role too if we are worried about the way economic might can be transferred to military power. Yet, growth rates and absolute dollar differences in per capita terms can be a useful piece of information for this. Given that the Chinese population is 4.4 times the population of the US,  the US would have to increase its tax with $4.4 for every additional dollar the Chinese government charges each citizen as a contribution to military expenditures in order to prevent “catch up”. So, the US needs to stay far ahead in GDP per capita terms in order to keep the lead militarily.

This analysis is obviously overly simplistic (it’s a blog post). I think we can all agree that looking at a number of indicators of capabilities is better than just one. Moreover, we haven’t even talked about how material capabilities do and do not translate into leverage and threats.

The biggest issue I had with the article in my original post, however, was the way in which the policy consequences of all this were framed. Beckley defines the stakes as an argument between declinists who believe that the US should resort to mercantilist policies to contain China and his perspective in which the US should “contain China’s growth by maintaining a liberal international economic policy.”  This debate between contain and contain inaccurately reflects the policy options. Here is how Thomas Christensen describes US policy towards China (emphasis mine):

As a former U.S. Department of State (DOS) official working on China policy, I would sum up Bush’s strategy as a long-term effort to shape the choices the leadership in Beijing makes about how to use China’s increasing regional and global influence. Rather than trying to rollback or contain the growth of Chinese power, the United States has used the combination of a strong U.S. regional presence and a series of creative diplomatic initiatives to encourage Beijing to seek increased influence through diplomatic and economic interactions rather than coercion, and to use that increased influence in a manner that improves the prospects for security and economic prosperity in Asia and around the world.

This strikes me as exactly right. We don’t have to be naive that it is easy to give a rising China its place in the current diplomatic and economic order but containing China’s growth is likely to be just as dangerous, if not more so. The non-containment strategy at least has the advantage of helping to lift millions of people out of poverty.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Erik Voeten

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.