Debating Whether China Is Getting Stronger or Weaker Won’t Make U.S. Policy More Sound

While U.S. anxiety about China’s resurgence has increased steadily since the end of the Cold War, it has coexisted with occasional waves of concern about the sustainability of China’s growth and the viability of its political model. In an April 7, 1999 speech, then-President Bill Clinton advised that “as we focus on the potential challenge that a strong China could present to the United States in the future, let us not forget the risk of a weak China.”

Few observers would characterize contemporary China as “weak.” It possesses the world’s second-largest economy, serves as the largest trading partner for more than 120 countries, and dominates global supply chains for many critical minerals. Its military abilities have advanced to the point that distinguished observers question whether the United States would win a war over Taiwan. Finally, as seen with its brokering of a normalization deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the recent expansion of the BRICS grouping, it is an increasingly active diplomatic player on the global stage.

But in light of China’s growth headwinds, observes Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security, “conventional wisdom seems to be flipping from a concern with the unstoppable rise of Chinese power to a worry about the irrevocable decline of China’s economy and population.” As such, a variant of Clinton’s formulation has come to shape the debate over Washington’s policy options toward Beijing: Does the United States have more to fear from a powerful China that continues to strengthen or from a powerful China that begins to decline?

While the question takes into account the economic, military, and diplomatic strides China has made over the past quarter-century—its starting point, after all, is that China is powerful—it seems to embed a questionable, two-part premise: that strategic competition between the United States and China will have a decisive resolution, and that Washington only has a narrow window in which to achieve that resolution on terms that it prefers or can at least accept.

If China is steadily resurgent, the thinking goes, then the United States, its allies, and its partners must move swiftly to forestall a power transition that would enable Beijing to render the international system safer for authoritarianism. If, on the other hand, China is on the cusp of systemic decline, then Washington and its friends must move with perhaps even greater urgency to dissuade Chinese aggression against Taiwan. Some observers argue that Beijing may be inclined to wage a war for reunification while it still believes that it can prevail.

Each hypothesis is analytically dubious. There are many reasons why China is unlikely to overtake the United States as the world’s preeminent power. Economically, it will be difficult for the yuan to develop into a global reserve currency unless China relaxes capital controls—a virtual impossibility in view of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) political prerogatives. And the Belt and Road Initiative, which debuted a decade ago, has been experiencing mounting financial woes and geopolitical pushback, prompting China to revamp it for the coming decade. Militarily, while China is an increasingly capable regional competitor to the United States, it is far from being a global peer. And even in the Indo-Pacific, the United States is actively strengthening security ties with its fellow Quad members as well as with ASEAN countries including the Philippines and Vietnam, making it harder for China to dominate. Finally, diplomatically, as seen with the reinvigoration of the Quad and NATO, as well as growing strategic connectivity between U.S. allies and partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, advanced industrial democracies are increasingly coalescing to contest China’s influence.

As for the second hypothesis, that China is on the brink of terminal decline, largely due to its economic challenges, there are indeed reasons to believe that those challenges may be more intractable today than they were ten or even five years earlier. As such, the possibility of a sustained slowdown no longer seems far-fetched. The Lowy Institute ventured last March that China’s gross domestic product (GDP) would increase by an average of 2-3 percent annually through 2050. A shrinking ratio between its working-age and elderly populations will increasingly constrain the scope of its potential economic growth, the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have intensified efforts on the part of advanced industrial democracies to “de-risk” and diversify away from its exports, and, as many observers have noted, Xi Jinping has made clear that growing the economy should not take precedence over enhancing the CCP’s control.

But there are at least four points of context to consider when weighing China’s economic outlook, which will play an important role in shaping its strategic one:

  • First, the slowing of its growth rate is not surprising for a country the GDP of which grew from just under $397 billion in 1990 to almost $14.9 trillion in 2020, a roughly 37-fold increase.
  • Second, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts that China’s GDP will increase by 5 percent this year and 4.2 percent next year. These are a far cry from the figures that China once posted, but not as disappointing when compared to the IMF’s projections that advanced economies’ GDPs will, overall, increase by 1.5 percent this year and 1.4 percent next year. Indeed, slower Chinese growth should be seen as part of a larger, little remarked trend that New York Times columnist David Wallace-Wells noted in August: that global growth has been decelerating for several decades.
  • Third, China’s economy still has room to expand if one considers productivity sources that it has yet to harvest, especially in the domains of critical and emerging technologies where the government is looking to build greater self-reliance by developing “little giants” and “single champions.”
  • Fourth, some of the socioeconomic challenges that confront China also confront many other countries. Thus, for example, while its demographic outlook is bleak, many core U.S. allies and partners have challenging demographic outlooks as well. The United Nations projects that China’s population will decrease by 8.4 percent between now and 2050; it projects that the respective populations of Germany, Italy, South Korea, and Japan will decrease by 5.2 percent, 11.2 percent, 11.6 percent, and 15.8 percent over the same time period.

On balance, explains Martin Wolf, the Financial Times’ chief economics commentator, China has both “deep structural problems” and “significant strengths”; presenting them alongside each other is essential to rightsizing the competitive challenge that it poses to the United States.

As for the concern that slowing growth might induce China to attack Taiwan sooner rather than later, scholars including Jessica Chen Weiss, Taylor Fravel, and Minxin Pei have demonstrated that there is little historical basis for “diversionary war” theory. Importantly, while Xi and his advisors appreciate that China’s internal and external challenges are building, they do not appear to have concluded that its time horizon is narrowing; to the contrary, in his political report to the 20th Party Congress last October, he affirmed his aspiration for China to become “a great modern socialist country that leads the world in terms of composite national strength and international influence by the middle of the century.”

To that end, China is deepening its ties with Russia and Iran, which share its grievances against the extent of U.S. influence; making inroads with hedging powers, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which believe that they can leverage deteriorating U.S.-China relations to enhance their own agency; and building its influence across the developing world. And while China’s critiques of the present order betray the underspecification of its alternative conception, the CCP has made some progress in fleshing out a potential alternative. With a triplet of recent initiatives—the Global Development Initiative (introduced in September 2021), the Global Security Initiative (April 2022), and the Global Civilization Initiative (March 2023)—it is promulgating a system in which, respectively, human rights are conceptualized more in terms of economic development than political freedoms, security alliances play a less central role in shaping interstate relations, and developing countries do not regard the embrace of Western values as a precondition for modernizing. If one weighs both China’s accumulated and potential power, the relationships that it is cultivating across the world, and the ordering concepts that it is advancing, it is not self-evident that the CCP has—or discerns—a closing window of opportunity in which to accomplish China’s “great rejuvenation.”

The present U.S. debate over China policy is anchored in two prevalent narratives: one emphasizing the country’s competitive strengths, the other spotlighting its competitive liabilities. Ironically, both arise from a place of anxiety and are likely to induce U.S. defensiveness. As Ryan Hass and I argued in June 2021, there is a different, less time-bound, way to think of China: as a competitor that, while likely to endure, is constrained both at home and abroad. If one accepts this conception, the U.S.-China relationship is not a rivalry to be settled by an arbitrary deadline, but a condition to be managed over the long term. As National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan put it at the Aspen Security Forum in July: “We’re going to have to live with the People’s Republic of China as a feature of the international landscape indefinitely, and we will have to learn to live together as major powers.”

Indeed, it is unclear that either the United States or China will “win” their strategic competition. Each has significant structural advantages that it can bring to bear for a protracted contest that the other cannot readily replicate. And should the nightmare of great-power war come to pass, any “victory” would be Pyrrhic; it is not self-evident that the “loser” would be so thoroughly devastated as to recalibrate its strategic orientation vis-à-vis the “winner” or prove incapable of reconstituting its defense industrial base over time.

Debating whether a powerful China has an expansive window in which to realize commensurate ambitions or a shrinking one in which to achieve narrow objectives is more likely to generate analytical whiplash than prudent policy. America’s best bet for competing with China over the long haul is to renew itself, restoring the internal foundations of its strength and ensuring that its alliances and partnerships have affirmative purposes that endure no matter what steps Beijing takes.