It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

AP Photo/Andy Wong
China’s flag flies alongside the U.S. flag in Washington, D.C.

Well into their second year in office, President Biden and his team are due to release their administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS). Since Ronald Reagan’s second term in the White House, the first to release an NSS following a statutory requirement provided by the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Department Reorganization Act of 1986, each U.S. president has released an NSS by the second year of his first term in office. Even with reported delays and revisions in the forthcoming NSS, Biden is not expected to break with this tradition.

How Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will affect the forthcoming NSS is uncertain. But if the Department of Defense’s recently released National Defense Strategy is any indication — a post-invasion document that continued to maintain the “People’s Republic of China (PRC) as [its] most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenge for the Department” — we should expect China to remain front and center in the 2022 NSS. Borrowing language from Biden’s 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, the administration likely will continue to seek to “out-compete a more assertive and authoritarian China over the long-term … invest[ing] in our people, our economy, and our democracy.”

There’s one problem: across a range of scenarios, our research team’s long-term forecasts show China is likely to pass the U.S. as the world’s leading power by mid-century.

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Contemporary China, Jonathan Moyer, Austin Matthews and I illustrate that the only scenarios where this power transition does not take place involve persistent economic stagnation in China or substantial U.S. economic growth and relative increases in U.S. military spending, a larger nuclear stockpile, increased fertility trades, more trade openness, and a larger diplomatic corps. While the former scenario is plausible, the latter appears highly unlikely.

If China’s economy exceeds growth skeptics’ expectations, the world is headed toward a U.S.-China power transition. Even if China’s economic growth is lackluster, the bulk of plausible scenarios demonstrate a substantial narrowing of the present U.S-China power gap.

Forecasting international power dynamics decades into the future might seem like a fool’s errand. Many will tell you it is, or that we are just as liable to get things wrong as we are right. But long-term forecasting has a long history among social scientists, and a successful one at that — at least when it comes to forecasts based on long-term structural drivers (as in core demographic and economic trends that are the product of well-studied, relatively stable phenomena).

For example, a 1999 version of the forecasting tool around which much of our team’s work is centered, International Futures, projected 15 years in advance the exact year that China’s GDP at purchasing power parity would equal that of the U.S.: 2014. Forecasts from a related tool, the World Integrated Model (WIM), provide another example. The WIM estimated in 1978 that the world population in 2000 would equal between 5.9 billion and 6.2 billion (the actual number was 6.1 billion) and between 7.6 billion and 8.7 billion by 2025 (the world population as of 2020 was 7.8 billion).

Yet, the purpose of these forecasts is not to make point predictions, even if they can prove accurate. It is to define a range of expected outcomes across a range of conditions. Uncertainty remains a certainty. Here, we characterize uncertainty through scenarios that simulate alternative future worlds. For the U.S. and China, we examined changes around our base case forecast, simulating higher and lower than expected projections for GDP growth, military spending, count of nuclear warheads, trade volume, number of embassies abroad, and total fertility rates.

There were two persistent findings. First, in all but one of our 29 scenarios, the power gap between the U.S. and China continued to narrow, and in 26 of the 29 scenarios to close and transition, by mid-century. Second, barring long-term economic stagnation, China will continue to rise through mid-century, reaping the negative impacts of its population decline only later in the century.

In these scenarios, “power” is defined using an index of material capabilities that includes a country’s economic size, trade volume, diplomatic representation abroad, military spending, and nuclear warheads stockpile. That said, alternative measures tell a similar story, changing the timing of a U.S.-China power transition by roughly a decade earlier or later, but not its persistence across scenarios.

If China is poised to surpass the U.S. in the coming decades, does that mean we are also poised for a U.S.-China conflict? Are we caught in a Thucydides trap? Previous scholarship provides an answer: Not necessarily.

As economist and conflict scholar Kenneth Boulding argued, “It is one nation’s image of the hostility of another, not the ‘real’ hostility, which determines its reaction” to perceived threats. Policymakers will judge whether their countries’ pending power transition is the product of ill will, perhaps risking conflict, or if it is simply a product of long-term structural shifts in a largely anarchic world.

Anarchy is what states make of it, contends Alexander Wendt. Rather than viewing U.S.-China relations through a conflictual, Hobbesian lens, policymakers can pursue their countries’ interests while maintaining a competitive and cooperative, Lockean culture of anarchy. Regarding the long-term national security threat of climate change, there may even be openings for wholly cooperative, Kantian relations characterized by pluralistic interconnectedness and collective action.

Of course, as evidenced by Russia’s campaign of atrocities in Ukraine, conflictive international relationships will continue to exist. Wars of aggression must be resisted through diplomatic, economic, informational and — when necessary — military means. However, constructivist international relations scholarship suggests that the greater the number of countries that commit to a more cooperative mindset, the closer the world comes to a tipping point that transforms it into a more peaceful one. This occurred in once war-stricken Western Europe. It could occur elsewhere, at least in part, if policymakers and their constituents reconcile national images with reality.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine — as long as U.S. and Chinese policymakers choose to feel fine about it, too.

Collin Meisel is a senior research associate and Diplometrics Program lead at the University of Denver’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures and subject matter expert at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. Follow him on Twitter @CollinMeisel.

Tags Biden China China aggression China economy Ronald Reagan superpowers Vladimir Putin

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