America second? Yes, and China’s lead is only growing
In Boston, commencement season is a time to celebrate our world-leading universities, including engineering powerhouse MIT. But Bostonians might be shocked to learn that China’s Tsinghua University dethroned MIT as the top engineering university in the world in 2015, according to the closely-watched US News & World Report annual rankings. Tsinghua’s recent surge is not an isolated example. Everyone knows about China’s rise, but few have realized its magnitude or its consequences.
Among the top 10 schools of engineering, China and the United States now each have four. In STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), which provide the core competencies driving advances in the fastest-growing sectors of modern economies, China annually graduates four times as many students as the United States (1.3 million vs. 300,000). And in every year of the Obama administration, Chinese universities awarded more PhDs in STEM fields than American universities.
For Americans who grew up in a world in which USA meant “number one,” the idea that China could truly challenge the United States as a global educational leader seems impossible to imagine.
This is not the only reality Americans willfully ignore. In my national security course at Harvard, the lecture on China begins with a quiz. Students get a sheet with 25 indicators of economic performance. Their task is to estimate when China might overtake the United States as the top producer or market of automobiles, supercomputers, smartphones, and so on. Most are stunned to learn that China has already surpassed the United States on each of these metrics.
I then ask whether they believe that in their lifetime China will overtake the United States to become the largest economy in the world. In last year’s class of 60 students, about half bet they would live to see the United States become number two, while half disagreed.
When I show the class headlines from the 2014 IMF-World Bank meeting announcing that China had become the largest economy in the world, students react with a mix of dismay and disbelief. By 2016, China’s GDP was $21 trillion and America’s was $18.5 trillion, when measured by purchasing power parity (PPP), which both the CIA and IMF agree is the best yardstick for comparing national economies.
Students are not the only ones in the dark about China’s rise. Most of the press has similarly missed the big picture. The favorite story line in the Western media about the Chinese economy is “slowdown.” The question few pause to ask is: slowing compared to whom? The American press’s favorite adjective to describe our economic performance has been “recovering.” But despite its “slowdown,” China today is growing three times as fast as the United States.
Never before has a nation risen so fast on so many dimensions. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, China’s economy was just 10 percent the size of America’s. By 2014, it had catapulted to 100 percent, and today it stands at 115 percent. If the US and Chinese economies continue their current growth trends, China’s economy will be 50 percent larger in 2023. By 2040, it will be three times larger.
A nation that did not appear in any of the international league tables in 1980 has vaulted into the top position. Yet in the face of what is arguably the most consequential geopolitical trend of our lifetime, Washington has mostly played a game of “let’s pretend.” Policy makers have repeatedly put forward strategies to “manage” China. The question we should ask candidly is whether China has been managing us.
President Trump’s claims that we have been “losing” to China reflect, in part, the reality of a shifting see-saw. A bigger, stronger China is challenging American interests in the South China Sea, taking our jobs, buying American companies, and replacing us as the primary trading partner of nations not only in its neighborhood, but also in Europe, where China recently unseated the United States as Germany’s largest trading partner.
Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” struck a chord with voters. Number one is who we are. But politically appealing slogans are not a solution for the dramatic resurgence of a 5,000-year old civilization with 1.4 billion people, led by a president whose own mission is the “Great Rejuvenation” of China — in other words, to “Make China Great Again.” To construct a grand strategy for the China challenge that protects vital US interests without catastrophic conflict, policy makers must begin by recognizing these uncomfortable but undeniable realities.
Graham Allison is the director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the author of the forthcoming book “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?”