NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Chinese Leaders' Choices between Aggression and Accommodation Are Important

March 31, 2015

Based on purchasing power parity, China will soon have the largest GDP in the world. The choices that Chinese leaders make about how to use their country's growing economic influence will be important.

In 1913, the year before the outbreak of the World War I, the United States had the world's largest GDP. The next four countries were Germany, Great Britain, also, Russia and, surprisingly, China. In 1913, as today, China had the world's largest population. More people can produce more products. However, in 1913 China was also politically weak: divided internally and vulnerable to external imperialism.

The world today is very different from what it was a century ago, but the 1913 configuration is still instructive.

  • First of all, the 1913 rankings demonstrate a large economy itself does not automatically translate into global political influence.
  • Second, a large economy does not necessarily result in a robust military.
  • Third, the emergence of a new economic Number One does not mean that international conflict is inevitable.
  • Fourth, when conflict occurs it is not necessarily because a rising power is bent on aggression.

In short, the choices that major powers make are more important than their economic rank. Which choice China makes will have profound consequences for East Asia and the world. As number one, China may assume it has the right to extend its influence at the expense of others and act on its assumption.

Source: Richard C. Bush III, "What does China having the largest GDP mean?" Brookings Institute, March 27, 2015.

 

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