Will China Rule the World?

CAMBRIDGE – Thirty years ago, China had a tiny footprint on the global economy and little influence outside its borders, save for a few countries with which it had close political and military relationships. Today, the country is a remarkable economic power: the world’s manufacturing workshop, its foremost financier, a leading investor across the globe from Africa to Latin America, and, increasingly, a major source of research and development.

The Chinese government sits atop an astonishing level of foreign reserves – greater than $2 trillion. There is not a single business anywhere in the world that has not felt China’s impact, either as a low-cost supplier, or more threateningly, as a formidable competitor.

China is still a poor country. Although average incomes have risen very rapidly in recent decades, they still stand at between one-seventh and one-eighth the levels in the United States – lower than in Turkey or Colombia and not much higher than in El Salvador or Egypt. While coastal China and its major metropolises evince tremendous wealth, large swaths of Western China remain mired in poverty. Nevertheless, China’s economy is projected to surpass that of the US in size sometime in the next two decades.

Meanwhile, the US, the world’s sole economic hyper-power until recently, remains a diminished giant. It stands humbled by its foreign-policy blunders and a massive financial crisis. Its credibility after the disastrous invasion of Iraq is at an all-time low, notwithstanding the global sympathy for President Barack Obama, and its economic model is in tatters. The once-almighty dollar totters at the mercy of China and the oil-rich states.