By Thomas J Volgy
(Presidents Trump and Xi inspecting troops in Beijing, November 9, 2017. Photo courtesy of New York Times)
As a close observer of international relations, it is difficult to read what the U.S. President just said in China. According to news accounts he indicated that China had left America “so far behind”, blamed previous U.S. administrations for our trade imbalance, seems to have suggested that the U.S. needs China more than China needs the U.S., and thus created the impression of an imbalance in power relations favoring the Chinese, praised President Xi for consolidating his power as an autocrat, and called Xi “a very special man” (New York Times, November 9, 2017).
According to the New York Times, the warm embrace was not reciprocated by President Xi, and to many Chinese the U.S. President appeared to come as a supplicant, rather than representing the most powerful country in the world.
Does any of this matter? Most U.S. Presidents (if not all) make sure that they project American power, not because they feel good doing so (which they probably do), or because it plays well with domestic audiences (which it does), but because such projection carries with it substantial “soft power”: it confers on the U.S. a very special status of being the strongest of major powers, and grants us additional influence over the course of global affairs. Doing the opposite, which appears to be the case with Trump’s China visit, simply underscores the claims of Chinese and Russian foreign policy makers that American global leadership and American global power have come and gone.
And that’s not true. I have not met a single person with good knowledge of China, either in North America or in Europe, who wanted to move there to live because it was a better country in which to live. In what way has China left us “so far behind”?
- With over a billion people, its economy is still smaller than ours. More important, Chinese per capita income is a shade below $6,900 a year, compared to that of the U.S. ($17,200), making us two and half times richer than China.
- Our economy and economic well-being is far less dependent than the Chinese on those global markets that no one country can control. One measure of this is trade/GDP; the higher the percentage the less autonomy a country enjoys from the vagaries of global economic fluctuations. By this measure some 28 percent of our economy is dependent on international trade while for the Chinese it hovers over and under 40 percent, making China far more vulnerable to global fluctuations than the U.S.
- The global currency is the dollar, it has been for many decades, and continues to be so, giving us a very strong advantage over both China and other nations. Chinese efforts at making the yuan (RMB) competitive have not been successful. No wonder that the Chinese have invested heavily in the U.S. economy, and now they are dependent in no small measure on our economy doing well.
- We spend more on research and development, and especially per capita than any other country.
- Depending on the source, U.S. workers range anywhere from being the most productive to the fifth most productive in the world. Chinese workers, on average, generate only 19 percent of the amount of GDP an American worker does (Bloomberg, May 11, 2017).
- Over a million foreign students studied in U.S. universities last year (despite issues about immigration and visas). That is more than twice the number of foreign students in Chinese universities, and the largest number of foreign students for any country in the world. There are nearly as many Chinese students in American universities than all the world's foreign students in Chinese universities.
- Our military is by far the strongest, not only compared to any other country today, but probably in the history of the world. In terms of global power comparisons, we have a highly sophisticated worldwide reach; the Chinese are still working on a deep water navy and their naval capabilities are limited to reaching places offshore near their own borders in Asia.
- The U.S. has approximately 6,800 nuclear warheads; the Chinese have roughly 270, or fewer than France.
- Most damaging: ongoing border disputes with other countries lead to increased conflict, instability, and suspicion. We have no such significant conflicts with our neighbors. The Chinese has been unable to resolve theirs and in fact have exacerbated these conflicts (and increased resistance to Chinese leadership in the region as a consequence) in the South China Sea.
Have the Chinese left us behind? Facts suggest the very opposite. It is dangerous for an American president to say that they have. Saying it increases the prospects that leaders of other states will begin to believe it, and diminish our abilities to pursue our foreign policy objectives. Perhaps even more important, Chinese leaders may begin to believe it as well.
It may become the ultimate foreign policy irony of this Administration that on the way to trying to "make us great again," our global "influence" will substantially diminish as a result of the actions and words coming from this White House.
Tom Volgy is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Arizona and the former Executive Director of the International Studies Association.