How Will We Know When China is Number One?

A look back a mere hundred years ago may give us some answers. 

It has been conventional wisdom for well over a decade that China is a rising power. The statistics on China’s current size and projections about its future growth have become such clichés that they scarcely warrant repeating. Suffice to say that most observers agree that China, already the world’s most populous country and one of its military and economic powerhouses, will replace the United States as the world’s largest economy at some point mid-century. The implied corollary is that, if unstopped either by external pressure or internal fissure, China inexorably is set to replace the United States as the world’s dominant military and geopolitical force in due course. Pax Sinica impends.

By most accounts, however, the American Era is far from over. As of 2014, the United States still boasts the largest economy in the world and a vastly superior GDP per capita to China, which, its leaders are keen to remind the world, still considers itself a developing nation. It is U.S. leadership that remains truly essential for global agreements to be concluded and implemented, and it is towards Washington that the world looks when global, regional and local crises emerge. The Pentagon’s budget continues to dwarf those of its rivals. And while the People’s Liberation Army might look menacing from the perspective of Tokyo, Taipei or Manila, China’s military hardly constitutes a direct threat to the United States. China, on the other hand, finds itself encircled by a string of formal and tacit U.S. alliances from the western Himalayas to the East China Sea.

As such, the question presents itself: assuming the continued rise of China, when will we know—indeed, how will we know—that Beijing has knocked Washington off the top spot? The various gauges of national power favored by international-relations scholars—military spending, total industrial output, population, territorial size and so forth—have the virtues of being concrete measures of material wherewithal and at least open up the possibility of comparing the United States and China along objective dimensions. Yet such measures are also highly discrete from one another—that is, they constitute an array of fragmented indicators that are difficult to synthesize into a single index of national power. Attempts to create such aggregated measures of power abound, but often end up failing basic “sniff tests.” And, of course, actual influence in international politics is even harder to grasp, let alone measure.

In fact, the attempt to operationalize and measure China’s ascent to global preponderance may be a lost cause. For China’s assumption of primacy will not be announced by fanfare; no committee of experts will confer to bestow upon China the mantle of world leader. Just as it has been to date, China’s rise will be gradual, uneven and extremely complicated. To understand the coming process more fully, it is helpful to recall the last time one nation replaced another at the pinnacle of the international-political league table.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the United States played the role of rising power that China occupies today. Back then, the British Empire stood tall among the Great Powers of the world, ruling over 450 million people and thirteen million square miles of territory—roughly one quarter of the planet’s land mass. The “workshop of the world” for most of the 1800s, Britain’s economic preeminence underpinned and bankrolled an unprecedented level of political, diplomatic and military primacy abroad. By the mid-twentieth century, of course, it was obvious that the United States had emphatically surpassed Britain in terms of geopolitical clout. At what point, then, did the United States overtake Britain?

The Anglo-American power transition did not happen all at once. For the sake of convenience, many scholars point to 1895 as the year in which the British Empire began to cede influence to the United States. That year, Britain bowed to President Grover Cleveland’s demand that a boundary dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana (modern day Guyana) be settled via international arbitration, a show of deference that was followed by a gradual strategic withdrawal by Britain from the Western Hemisphere.

Yet it makes little sense to argue that Washington eclipsed London from this point onwards: the United States only overtook the British Empire in military terms during the twentieth century; London remained the world’s financial center until the 1920s; and Washington showed precious little global leadership during the interwar years. The Anglo-American firm fought as nominal equals in World War II, even if it was the United States that emerged as the unmistakable senior partner by the war’s end and aftermath. Although U.S. primacy was clearly established by the time of, say, the Suez Crisis of 1956, such an outcome had seemed far from inevitable sixty, fifty, or even twenty years earlier.