Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It's A System, Not a Dyad

. Wednesday, January 25, 2012

There's a lot of discussion of China's rise and it's implications for the U.S. Michael Beckley published an article in International Security arguing that China's rise over the past two decades has been dramatically overstated. Phil Arena and Eric Voeten criticize Beckley's thinking -- although not conclusively, I don't think -- while Dan Drezner argues that things is looking up for the U.S., Roubini and Pettis argue that things is looking down for China, Chang (again) says China is gonna collapse, while Liu and Chen think China will democratize. Joffe thinks that the U.S. still has time to act to prevent its slide into "Just Another Country" status, while Subramanian thinks that China has already surpassed the U.S. and Rodrik demurs.

That's a lot of different views being espoused by a lot of different people, most of who are pretty smart, all from the past month or two (and most from the past week!). And while I could quibble with a lot of individual points being made by most of them, I'd like to instead shift the focus a little bit. All of these discussions have either been monadic -- focused on internal aspects of either the U.S. or China -- or dyadic -- the relationship between the two and/or the relative gap between them. While these examinations have their uses, in terms of importance for geopolitics we should think of the systemic as well as the monadic and dyadic.

Similar discussions were being had in the 1980s. Back then it wasn't China's rise that threatened the U.S.'s position, but the advance of Japan and other rapidly-industrializing countries. In response to the prognosticators of the day, Susan Strange wrote a series of articles (e.g. here and here) arguing that many folks were missing the point. In response to those complaining that the U.S. was losing its manufacturing base Strange wrote (second link, p. 5), "Is it more desirable that Americans should wear blue collars and mind the machines or that they should wear white collars and design, direct, and finance the whole operation?" To ask that question is to answer it, but then why has everyone lost their breath over the disclosure that Apple products are assembled in outside of the United States? As Strange noted, what it's important is controlling the information and collecting the profit. In fact, the spread of influence of American corporations outside of the U.S. borders and into other countries actually strengthened American power, according to Strange. Think of it as more fingers in more pies.

Rather than focusing on short-term trends in simple metrics like GDP, Strange was concerned with the "structural power" rather than "relational power". Structural power contained four metrics: the ability to exercise control over others' security; control the system of production and trade; determine the structure of global finance and credit; have the most influence over the global stock of knowledge.

Regarding the first, a forthcoming paper in Conflict Management and Peace Science by Cranmer, Desmarais, and Menninga (all UNC folks) analyzes "Complex Dependencies in the Alliance Network" and confirms what one Chinese official recently said (from memory; can't find the reference now), that China has "only one ally" and it's the one that no one would want: North Korea. The United States, by contrast, has robust ties to nearly every major power in the world and is a central member of NATO, perhaps the strongest defense relationship in the history of the world. (In the Cranmer et al paper, see Figure 4.) In terms of traditional capabilities the U.S. far out-paces everyone else too, but it's the structural relationships that really give the U.S. significant influence.

Regarding production and trade, a recent study looking at networks of corporate ownership found a highly-skewed distribution: 147 firms control nearly 40% of corporations worldwide. Of the top 50 firms in terms of "corporate control", nearly half (24/50) are U.S. firms; exactly one is from China, and it's the last on the list (#50). China is the world's largest exporter, but that is an indication of its dependence on the rest of the world for growth rather than the opposite. And remember that U.S. equities have out-performed China's during the past few years. Is China an important global actor in terms of production and trade? Yes of course. Have they become as embedded into knowledge and production as the U.S.? Not yet.

In terms of the structure of global finance and credit, I have a paper (with Thomas, Sarah, and Andy Pennock) that deals with some of this, currently in the revise and resubmit stage. We've blogged about this before too, so I'll refer you to those rather than re-write the whole thing. (Some other relevant past posts are here.) The gist is that China has surprisingly little presence in the global financial system -- as in, almost none at all -- while the structural position of the U.S. is unparalleled. That's one lesson from Eichengreen's Exorbitant Privilege as well, applied to the monetary/currency systems.

Regarding the fourth of Strange criteria -- control of the global stock of knowledge -- it is true that China has been churning out many more students than the U.S. in STEM majors, and that the quality of Chinese education has improved dramatically, but China remains well behind more developed economies in terms of innovation: Of the 100 most innovative firms in a recent study, 40% are in the U.S.; none are in China. In terms of military technology, the U.S. has a lead of decades on China, and continues to dramatically out-spend China in military R&D. That, coupled with the embeddedness of the U.S. within the global security system, provides a huge structural advantage over China.

I could go on, but this should be enough to give you the gist. It's not enough to just look at recent trends in GDP growth rates and conclude that China will eclipse the U.S. within the next decade. The U.S. has spent decades deeply integrating itself into the global economy, financial system, security apparatus, and knowledge networks. Those positions will likely privilege the U.S. for the foreseeable future. It seems likely that China recognizes this, which is why it hasn't begun challenging the U.S. on any significant dimension yet.


Phil Arena said...

Good points, all around.

You're absolutely right that I did not conclusively criticize Beckley. Nor was it my aim to do so. As I tried to make clear in the post, I was simply taking issue with one (particularly eye-catching) part of his argument. Not because I question the conclusion. But because I can't help myself.

Some time ago, I (and most of the internet) pushed back against the study that argued that brushing your teeth prevents heart attacks. I'm not anti-tooth-brushing. I'm all kinds of in favor it. I'm just not sure it prevents heart attacks.

I'm not a China alarmist. I just don't think that GDP per capita tells us much about global influence (particularly compared to GDP), and thought that deserved to be said.

JWells said...

I totally agree. I'm glad you reiterate the economic integration arguments that I did (a la Ikenberry):

It's A System, Not a Dyad
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