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Is the United States overestimating China’s power?

Dan Murphy, Harvard Kennedy School, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

Which country is the greatest threat to the United States? The answer, according to a large proportion of Americans, is clear: China.

Half of all Americans responding to a mid-2023 survey from the Pew Research Center cited China as the biggest risk to the U.S., with Russia trailing in second with 17%. Other surveys, such as from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, show similar findings.

Senior figures in recent U.S. administrations appear to agree with this assessment. In 2020, John Ratcliffe, director of national intelligence under President Donald Trump, wrote that Beijing “intends to dominate the U.S. and the rest of the planet economically, militarily and technologically.”

The White House’s current National Defense Strategy is not so alarmist, referring to China as the U.S.’s “pacing challenge” – a reference that, in the words of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, apparently means China has “the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the power to do so.”

As someone who has followed China for over a quarter century, I believe that many observers have overestimated the country’s apparent power. Recent challenges to China’s economy have led some people to reevaluate just how powerful China is. But hurdles to the growth of Chinese power extend far beyond the economic sector – and failing to acknowledge this reality may distort how policymakers and the public view the shift of geopolitical gravity in what was once called “the Chinese century.”

In overestimating China’s comprehensive power, the U.S. risks misallocating resources and attention, directing them toward a threat that is not as imminent as one might otherwise assume.

 

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that China is weak or about to collapse. Nor am I making an argument about China’s intentions. But rather, it is time to right-size the American understanding of the country’s comprehensive power. This process includes acknowledging both China’s tremendous accomplishments and its significant challenges. Doing so is, I believe, mission critical as the United States and China seek to put a floor underneath a badly damaged bilateral relationship.

Why have so many people misjudged China’s power?

One key reason for this misconception is that from a distance, China does indeed appear to be an unstoppable juggernaut. The high-level numbers bedazzle observers: Beijing commands the world’s largest or second-largest economy depending on the type of measurement; it has a rapidly growing military budget and sky-high numbers of graduates in engineering and math; and oversees huge infrastructure projects – laying down nearly 20,000 miles of high-speed rail tracks in less than a dozen years and building bridges at record pace.

But these eye-catching metrics don’t tell a complete story. Look under the hood and you’ll see that China faces a raft of intractable difficulties.

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