In 1956 the Russians politely informed Westerners that “history is on our side. We will bury you.” In the 1980s history seemed to side instead with Japan. Now it appears to be taking China’s part.
These prophesies are “self-denying”, according to Larry Summers, a former economic adviser to President Barack Obama. They fail to come to pass partly because America buys into them, then rouses itself to defy them. “As long as we’re worried about the future, the future will be better,” he said, shortly before leaving the White House. His speech is quoted in “Eclipse”, a new book by Arvind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Mr Subramanian argues that China’s economic might will overshadow America’s sooner than people think. He denies that his prophecy is self-denying. Even if America heeds its warning, there is precious little it can do about it.
Three forces will dictate China’s rise, Mr Subramanian argues: demography, convergence and “gravity”. Since China has over four times America’s population, it only has to produce a quarter of America’s output per head to exceed America’s total output.
Big though it is, China’s economy is also somewhat “backward”. That gives it plenty of scope to enjoy catch-up growth, unlike Japan’s economy, which was still far smaller than America’s when it reached the technological frontier.
That projection relies on the “gravity” model of trade, which assumes that commerce between countries depends on their economic weight and the distance between them. China’s trade will outpace America’s both because its own economy will expand faster and also because its neighbours will grow faster than those in America’s backyard.
Those prudent American strategists preparing their countrymen for a “multipolar” world are wrong. The global economy will remain unipolar, dominated by a “G1”, Mr Subramanian argues. It’s just that the one will be China not America.
China will never be G1: it is unlikely to surpass US in innovation, but always a “me too” player.