A Partnership of Equals

How Washington Should Respond to China's Economic Challenge

To be an economic superpower, a country must be sufficiently large, dynamic, and globally integrated to have a major impact on the world economy. Three political entities currently qualify: the United States, the European Union, and China. Inducing China to become a responsible pillar of the global economic system (as the other two are) will be one of the great challenges of coming decades -- particularly since at the moment China seems uninterested in playing such a role.

The United States remains the world's largest national economy, the issuer of its key currency, and in most years the leading source and recipient of foreign investment. The EU now has an even larger economy and even greater trade flows with the outside world, and the euro increasingly competes with the dollar as a global currency. China, the newest member of the club, is smaller than the other two but is growing more quickly and is more deeply integrated into the global economy. Its dramatic expansion is therefore having a powerful effect on the rest of the world. (China is often paired with India in such discussions, but India's GDP is less than half of China's. The value of the annual growth of China's trade exceeds the total annual value of India's trade. China will dominate its Asian neighbor for the foreseeable future.)

China poses a unique challenge because it is still poor, significantly nonmarketized, and authoritarian. All three characteristics reduce the likelihood that it will easily accept the systemic responsibilities that should ideally accompany superpower status. The integration of China into the existing global economic order will thus be more difficult than was, say, the integration of Japan a generation ago. The United States and the EU would like to co-opt China by integrating it into the regime that they have built and defended over the last several decades. There are increasing signs, however, that China has a different objective. In numerous areas, it is pursuing strategies that conflict with existing norms, rules, and institutional arrangements.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis