18 May, 2022


When If Ever Will China Overtake The US?

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Musings on the Thucydides Trap: Sino-US rivalry for global hegemony: When if ever will China overtake the US?

“Let China sleep; when the giant wakes up, it will shake the world” – Napoleon in 1803

The answer to the question in my title has to be fine grained; it depends what factors you include. Those who make broad-brush responses (10 years, 25 years, three decades etc.) are clumsy since more fine-grained, filigreed and precise assessments can be made. Specifics will help everyone, political analysts, businesses and governments to make decisions in their respective domains. I have condensed my presentation into 15 points, made provocative predictions, offered reasons for some and synoptic comments on others. All are to be treated as starting points for further reflection.

The odds that anyone will endorse all my musings in these fifteen rows are infinitesimally small. But that’s just the point; I want to get an informed discussion going among those who know what they are talking about. Therefore, comments to back-up the table follow. 

Strategic and Economic

America, supported by dozens of bases and eleven aircraft carrier battle groups, is capable of projecting power across the globe anywhere from the Atlantic and the Pacific to the Middle East, Europe, Americas and Australasia. Pax-Americana is a global imperialist strategic project that China does not need to replicate or compete with, or will it attempt to. China aims at global economic sway as an extension of its booming production capability and burgeoning surplus of investible savings surpluses (capital). Its military outlook is defensive. Its claim to Taiwan and its bullying claim to the entire South China Sea riding roughshod over all the smaller littoral states is misguided but argued as a defence of sovereignty. 

The strategic arena in which China will compete is space, electromagnetic weapons and cyber; that is twenty-first century warfare. From reading I have formed the impression that China is probably ahead in potential satellite-based aggression and on a par in laser-like weapons and internet aggression – the Russians are the masters of the last. It is likely that it will be able to knock out global satellite networks, paralyse military-logistics, GPS and power grid and disrupt global supply chains. If China is not already on par in these domains, it will soon be.

Though assured mutual destruction will be the outcome of nuclear war between these two adversaries, China has nothing to match US airpower and its fleet of stealth aircraft. The US also has top-order surveillance, targeting capability and drones for remote intervention. It takes time and a concerted effort in research and development to catch up in these domains. Taking an overview of these several aspects I suggest it will take China up to two decades to reach parity.

Manufacturing in the sense of industrial production has collapsed in the US and will never rise to global dominance again. I make it a point to search the domestic white good and electronic equipment departments of mega-malls in the US whenever I get the opportunity. I can say with reasonable confidence that there is not a single-made-in-US washing machine, microwave oven, TV, dishwasher, refrigerator and all that domestic appliance and entertainment stuff in big stores. All or nearly all this sort of stuff comes from China, South Korea, Mexico and Vietnam; ditto for clothing, shoes, handbags, luggage and myriads of paraphernalia from power tools to nail clippers. And the changeover happened 15 years ago. The US is now non-existent in the manufacture of durable goods.  

AI and robotics: Made in China 2025 is a strategic plan issued by Premier Li Keqiang in May 2015. With it, China aims to move away from being the world’s “factory” to high value products and services. China will never back away from sate-leadership of the economy. State subsidy of cutting-edge technology is a fundamental that it will not abandon even if Trump stands on his head and WTO goes tut, tut. Actually, the state subsidises high-tech and research in all countries and the spin off from military investment and space is a huge factor driving technology in all industrialised nations. 

The Thucydides Trap

The key industries in the Made in China strategy have sprung a Thucydides Trap.

Information Technology, internet-of-things and smart appliances

Robotics, AI and machine learning

Green energy, green vehicles, energy efficiency and electric vehicles

Aerospace equipment

Ocean engineering and high-tech ships

Railway equipment

Power equipment

Advanced materials 

Pharmaceuticals medicine and medical devices

Agricultural machinery

Thucydides (c.460 – c.400 BC) a historian recounts the struggle between Sparta and Athens in the History of the Peloponnesian War. A Thucydides Trap is a dynamic that arises when an established power fears a rising one that threatens to displace it. Rising Athens was a threat to Sparta; in the late 19th Century Germany challenged Britain; today the US fears relegation to second place by China in the global economic stakes and in the political and the regional military stakes in Afro-Asia. This is what makes the evolving scenario dangerous; Americans cannot accept the idea of relegation to second place. Bellicose Trump and his baying base are the loudest trumpets but this sentiment cuts right across society. The rise of China is inexorable, sometimes slow sometimes fast, but relentless; it’s simply a dynamic of history not willed by anybody. A Thucydides Trap has been sprung and this along with climate change will be the two principal concerns of the twenty-first century.

What is the current ranking status re this list? China has pulled ahead on IT, Robotics/AI, Green Energy & EVs, and Railway and Power Equipment. It lags in Materials Science, Aerospace and Pharmaceuticals/Medical. I don’t know enough to comment on Oceanographic Vessels and Agricultural Equipment; probably it lags far behind.

Finally the finial items in the Table; Education, Finance/$ Domination and Democratic Governance. China’s primary schools can in some ways claim to be better and none of its secondary schools are blackboard jungles scraping the bottom of the barrel like. American secondary schooling, at least the lower end, gets very low international ratings. Its best universities occupy never less than 12 slots among the best ranked in the world by any measure but two from China, Peking University and Tsinghua, are also there. Three if you count HKU as a university in China. 

Nurturing a great university is not only about pouring money, the Chinese are doing this by the boatload, its not only about, laboratories, computer-centres, libraries campuses and student dorms. It’s not even only about paying high for renowned professors, scholarships for the brightest and the average students, funding for research, papers published and patents secured. All this counts, but it takes decades if not centuries to nurture a great university; it’s about an ethos, a culture of scholarship, intellectual freedom and a community of teachers and students. China has a long way to go in these respects. Harsh critic though I am of liberalism, I grant that it has set the gold standard here. 

An overview essay is incomplete without a more pensive, perhaps philosophically inclined closure. I am confident that China will make it there to the frontline in this century. Material and tangible things giving its 1.3 billion a decent life will get done within a decade or two; in amorphous matters take longer. Democratic socialism I know not when; Marx insisted it was possible only in a world society. The 21-st Century with its confluence of global madnesses, driving or ameliorating each other, leaves humanity no other option. China’s future in an epochal sense belongs not to China but to the world. And the world needs to pass beyond capitalism as we have known it for centuries to a polity where social needs, individual abilities, collective economic trending, efficiency of the market in resource allocation and enterprise, and a wise relationship with Gaia are brought together. 

China’s Hong Kong Options

Politics also counts; as an example of clout let me discuss the recently much distressed case of Hong Kong (HK). China can quell HK not with guns but dollars, economics, water, food and electricity (90+% of meat, vegetables and sfish and 75% of water come from the Mainland while 25% of electricity is from the Daya Bay station in Guangdong). Air traffic at Chep Lap Kok is impossible without overflying Chinese airspace.  HK’s importance to for China is overrated. At hand over (1997) HK’s GDP was 17% of the China’s, now it is a mere 3% because the Chinese economy has become huge. Neighbouring Shenzhen already surpasses HK in population, GDP, industry and technological sophistication. Beijing has lost faith in HK so it is pouring resources into making SZ a showcase beside which HK will be dim. 

There could be a temptation for China to say “Let Hong Kong stew; let the loony fringe rant so long as it remains a side show” though this will be unpopular in China where people who are angry with HK and want it brought to heel. The size of the Shanghai stock market exceeds HK. If the government wishes it can push it to overtake HK. It’s really silly to bet against a $15 trillion economy and a population of 1.3 billion. (What can derail this is if HK’s delinquents, desperate to draw attention to themselves, escalate violence. The more Beijing ignores them the more frantic they will be to hog the limelight).

HK was a sleepy village of less than a million at the end of WW2; now it’s a bustling city that I love. Prosperity is due to three factors China, HK’s people, and the Colonial Legacy. When the revolution won in 1949, the money-pots of Shanghai and millions downtrodden by the horrors of anti-Japanese and civil wars fled to HK giving it a great demographic and financial boost. Later when an economic miracle fired-up in China, the biggest beneficiary was HK – entrepot, financial & banking centre, deal making hub. Even now 90% of all transactions that keep HK’s banks and financial markets buzzing are China related. The foundation of HK’s prosperity was the explosive growth of China’s economy.

People: The industriousness and quickness of wit and reaction of HK people is legendary; without it, HK will be nothing. Finally, the Colonial Legacy: Traditions of jurisprudence, law, top-class public-service and police, and a fabled Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) have established a playing field making Hong Kong the envy of others. It is these traditions that China does not have and had better acquire if it wants to be not only a global power but also a civilised one in the modern sense.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    If only you did not have “if ever” in your title I’d have said something. But now it is confusing.

    • 4

      Dr. David, In order to contain China, the US and its proxies Saudi and Israel that own an operate ISIL has been waging Economic terrorism and Maritime Hybrid Warfare: from Yemen, to Iran to Sri Lanka. They are also weaponizing Buddhism and Islam to contain China and Russia – an old Cold War project.
      Thie rise of Asia and China is an historical inevitability, given the continent’s demographic and creative power and wealth.

      America and EU.must be forced to GET OUT of the Indian Ocean, de-coolonize it as the ICJ said in the Chagos Islands verdict against the UK and US. US is the biggest security threat to the Indian Ocean region and Asia. It does not have any right to be in the India Ocean, it does not have coastal areas on the IO, and has not signed the UNCLOS. US is a rogue state that talks bull shit about a “free and open’ sea lanes!

      Europe is a mere peninsular of Asia at this time.

      • 0

        jews cannot put down china in a war, but use colonial method to put down them. jews and west have connection to Chinese muslim, on other are successfully countering back. but problem Chinese intelligence weak. same with Russia

        Jews have connection to both sides. West vs Russian. West vs China. they do same everywhere. They have been supporting Tamil and Indian while supporting Sri lanka army

  • 4

    China was far beyond America Culturally, even before there was an America, as we now know it!

  • 6

    China governed by its evil CCP the killer of 45 Millions of its people are 30 yrs away from catching upto US tech.

    There are products like Huawei which is under Govt and Military control and all sorts of unfair trade and tech breaches produced tech but they all depend on US companies like Intel/Qualcom/Broadcom/Google etc to survive as China is no where near in semi conductor tech to match US.

    Same comes with aerospace and other techs as well., with IP infringements and Trump White House and China cannot play the old dirty game and economy is on a downside which has never witnessed.

  • 2

    KD: your nation-state-centric thinking is limited.
    China is rising with Asia and Africa; China true to its third worldist heritage is lifting the little boats too while fending off US-EU attacks, and so too the great Continent of Asia, with Indonesia, ASEAN and India is rising. This is the Century of Asia and Asian hegemony. Asia also includes Russia.
    The US-Euro imperial project is already passe from this perspective, but you are right that the US military-business- industrial-intelligance-entertainment complex is dangerous.
    The US Doctor Octopus of Marvel fame, and its Saudi partner that staged the Easter Sunday carnage, funding and using local Muslims in Sri Lanka are the biggest rogue states in the world.
    But the world has already RE-Oriented to Asia from the Euro-American axis of colonial exploitation and looting of the wealth of Africa and Asia and the global South. This is why the US-Saudi Rogue states have launched numerous proxy wars in Asia as their Pivot unwinds!
    Finally, If US and its French and British puppy dogs touches Iran, Yemen, Iran and the Middle East will be the graveyard of Euro-American Hubris in a very short time as Asia will come together to tell them where to get off!

    • 0

      In short term or in the past, EROUPE with the of British and US engineered all wars in Africa, Mideast, Asia, SOUTH Asia AND EATERN EUROPE AND brought full destruction these countries in all continents in the last 70 years and so. they continuously did same thing they did in colonial time up until now, but unlike colonial time, consequences of creating wars is right there: these desperate people like Syrian know who raped their country or countries. And their answer “You are raping our countries, we will come in millions and take over your countries.”
      AND Jews loved that and SRI LANKAN who have been target of colonialists have to finally agree with Jews. JEWS MAY USE them for their interest and protect themselves, but WE cannot disagree with Jews at some point why Jews want as much Arabs immigrants in Europe by looking at Jewish history in Europe

      When it come to Sri lanka, I knew one thing that whether there were Jews interest or not, Sri lanka war is basically sole product of colonialists. I also, have to agree that whatever wrong Jews did, they have compensated sri lanka FOR IT by providing material and intelligent support through general FONSAKA.

  • 2

    Also, Kumar, the rise of China is inseparable from the rise of the Indian Ocean region and AFRICA which shares the Indian Ocean.

    China is an Asian power that seeks to UNITE Asia and Africa and China has a GLOBAL SOUTH PERSPECTIVE, which the US and EU has tried to Divide and rule and destroy as they did the non-Aligned Movement.
    China has not divided the Indian Ocean into fake regions like the Indo-Pacific, splitting the Indian Ocean which has civilizational unit/ continuity. It is the US and European empires that divides the Indian Ocean into the Indo-Pacific where the US runs its war ships, and the Western Indian Ocean which the EU has been looting while US messes in the Middle East with its vassel states Israel and Saudi waging proxy wars.
    Meanwhile India fiddles trying to find water on the moon, rather than reclaim the Indian Ocean!
    India is the laggard, trapped in fighting ancient windmills with Pakistan, as the rest of the Asia world moves on!

    • 3

      China is hardly the future – Dodo. It couldn’t influence events in Hong Kong let alone the East China Sea!

  • 2

    Dr. KD,

    Sweeping views about countries, basing it on some numbers, ignores the lack of political freedoms, of free speech, of the internment of Uighurs, etc.

    One of the reasons that China’s practices are detested by people across the political spectrum in the US is their alleged theft of intellectual property and other unfair trade practices. There is clear evidence for some of these allegations.

    The truth is that, as long as China remains undemocratic, with the communist party dominating every aspect of people’s lives, China can never ‘equal’ democratic societies, let alone surpass them.

    • 0

      One country becoming a support power is no good. then it will be full dictatorship by a country. Therefore, there should be US, China, India, Russia and Japan as supper powers or mini powers as now. This the best way to keep the world in balance. Also, other mini powers like Argentina and Brazil be there and should not take side with west to practice injustice in the UN against other members which will lead hatred build up in the world.

      However, My personal opinion that do not expect Western countries to be honest or respect other countries.
      Therefore, keeping the world in safe place and focused on important things like helping people for good standard of living and protecting environment is not an easy one.

  • 0

    The title of the article is to be interpreted such that the time period when China will overtake US in all areas under consideration. There is an old saying “slow and steady wins the race”. While the movement of US is somewhat sleepy, China is moving steady reminding one of the tortoise who won the race against the rabbit. Prof. Kum is well aware that China adopts a policy of selection and election in picking up people for the job. So it is in Singapore which has overtaken many a country around it. Both of these countries have limits in freedom of speech and other behavior. China to acquire some of the habits of Hong Kong? May be but within the main framework China. One may pose the question when would China change that framework? If it establishes that the existing framework is an obstacle to the very Chinese national interest then there would be changes.

  • 1

    Two matters are important in production. 1) Productivity: Let’s think of combined of all kind of resources, for that. 2). Labor Cost: The other one is only the human cost.
    In open economies productivity is high; labor cost is high too. In controlled economies productivity is low; labor cost low. The problem with it is, if the economy matures, or the market environment changes, open economy adjust itself, but controlled economy feel difficult for that. My friend said he buys a certain automotive part, if Chinese Rs 50,000, if Japanese Rs 75,000 and if Indian Rs 100,000 (not exact numbers). He said, once he changed in particular car the head lamp. The client came three times back in one month. He talked to dealer as two times he had paid out of his pocket for the bulb. Dealer sent him high cost one and the client didn’t come back, after that. He said the high cost one was an Indian brand. What India doing is, to survive the raising labor cost in its car industry, upshifting the quality. When in their time Eriksson or Samsung or Apple controlled the market without much controversy. But Huawei is creating its own competition and struggling in that problem. China is leading in quantity in many markets; but has not established in quality for any one of them.
    It is meaningless to compare US and China here because 1.5 B labor force is just now trying to much 350 Million labor force on production and consumption. This is why Chinese per capita income is low. Qatar, Norway, Swiss, Singapore are small countries, but per capita income is high. Neither US nor China is able to wipe them out of the map.

  • 0

    Dissatisfaction grows in free markets because people long for more. Grumbling and rebelliousness grow up when freedom is controlled. One can see what is happening in Hong Kong just only by the fear of losing freedom. Lankawe started as, next to Japan, well doing country in the South and East Asian Countries. But for 70 years Lankawe could not focus on any aspects of economy because their aspiration to enslave Tamils so far has not materialized. On many issues, now, Lankawe is much behind to Bangladesh. (Now they are blaming US-Saudi Union for their problems) Lankawe and Singapore are the text book lesson for China (1)to manage the North Eastern Muslim population,(2)what to do with Hong Kong and Taiwan and (3) really match USA in productivity. Otherwise China would grow into another USSR. Remember the Venezuela’s fireworks with their oil wealth for few years?

    As a Marxist, Prof. Kumar is dreaming China out growing America without its democracy maturing. We see in Japan and West that the need for Democracy and Economy grow and mature at equal strength to be both to be permanent. Germany and Japan could not hold on to the economic growth without proper growth in peoples control over their governments. On the other side, utter failure of the economy in USSR brought down its government.
    Think about a forest as free economy and farming field a controlled economy. A forest have all king of vegetation is in. By that virtue, it feeds itself. It flourishes itself. Farmer plants only one crop in his field. So has to constantly replenish the field. Even after that those lands, over a time, turn into deserts.

    West has been capturing and ruling countries for centuries and have leaned their lesson of what a pesky job of ruling countries. That is why their democracies are matured.

  • 2

    Mark my word, China will never ever overtake the US. It may few centuries, but before that Chinese society as whole will crumble. Many millions of children growing up without seeing their parents. May be once a year if they are lucky. They are growing up witheir grand parents who are fragile and unable to meet their parental love. Without this they become useless for future progress of China. Also, China is a autocratic country and they expand to rapidly . Pakistan, Sri Lanka, some of the Pacific Island and many African countries have fallen into the “ China trap” . These are detrimental for these poor countries as they do not have decipline fiscal policies, therefore progress curtailed. At the trade war with US , the China has played all their hands and slowly and steadily , the US has got them . It was very bad action for the Idiotic President to stop the MCC funding. Sickening but have heart Sri Lankan’s, this imbecile will be gone soon.

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