Brent Scowcroft Center Nonresident Senior Fellow Matthew Kroenig writes for the National Interest on why the United States maintains an edge over China:
China’s enormous population and rapid rate of economic growth mean that Beijing could soon dislodge Washington from its standing as the most dominant power in Asia. The Economist, for example, predicts that China could overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy—an important measure of national power—in the year 2021. Moreover, we know that military might tends to follow economic heft. Beijing’s ongoing military buildup is already constraining America’s ability to project power in the Asia-Pacific region. If China follows Washington’s lead in investing in global power-projection capabilities, decades from now it could conceivably usurp global military supremacy from Washington.
Or will it? The place to look for an answer to whether China really will become the globe’s most dominant power is not primarily in the economic or military realm. The more pertinent area of interest is China’s domestic political institutions, and they suggest that a more equivocal answer is warranted to the question of whether China will emerge as number one. Many Western political theorists have held that states ruled by democratic institutions perform better in long-run political competitions, and contemporary social-science research concurs. It is no accident that the most dominant states for the past several centuries, the United Kingdom and the United States, were also among the most democratic, or that their autocratic challengers, Imperial (and then Nazi) Germany and the Soviet Union, eventually imploded. Similarly, America’s institutions are its key competitive advantage in the coming contest with China. Far from China emerging supreme, there is every reason to believe that the American era will endure—and there is even reason for Washington to fear, not welcome, the possibility of a future democratic transition in China.