China’s economic growth has been so preposterously huge and fast that statistics sound like a riff from a stand-up routine. A few highlights from Graham Allison’s Destined for War:
- China’s share of the global economy was 2 percent in 1980. It’s expected to reach 30 percent by 2040.
- Between 1980 and 2015, China’s GDP increased from $300 billion to $11 trillion.
- In 2005, China’s economy was about half the size of the U.S. economy. In 2014—less than a decade later—China’s was slightly bigger. The IMF predicts that it will be 20 percent bigger than the U.S. economy by 2019.
- China is the world’s largest manufacturer and consumer of automobiles and makes 90 percent of the world’s smartphones.
- Rome wasn’t built in a day, you say? China’s out to falsify the old adage. “By 2005, the country was building the square-foot equivalent of today’s Rome every two weeks.”
- In the two decades between 1996 and 2016, China built 2.6 million miles of roads, and it has pledged $1.4 trillion to create a twenty-first-century “Silk Road” transportation web that will link sixty-five countries and over 4 billion people, from Asia to North Africa to Europe.
- “Between 2011 and 2013, China both produced and used more cement than the U.S. did in the entire twentieth century.”
- “China built the equivalent of Europe’s entire housing stock in just 15 years.”
- My favorite: “For every two-year period since 2008, the increment of growth in China’s GDP has been larger than the entire economy of India.” (Rimshot!)
No wonder Allison calls China “the biggest player in history.”
According to Allison, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s growth strategy has one overriding aim: “to make China great again.” China wants to be rich and powerful, so powerful that other nations will have to show China the respect it reserves. The late Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s “founding father,” told Allison: “How could [the Chinese] not aspire to be number one in Asia and in time the world?”
China is already flexing, in Asia and beyond. It doesn’t have to threaten military action. Manipulating exports or imports is punishment enough. When Japan detained Chinese fishermen in 2010, China stopped exporting rare metals. The Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, so China stopped buying Norwegian salmon. David Goldman reports that U.S. tech firms are willing to transfer technology to Chinese counterparts to access China’s irresistible market.
China has also shown a willingness to bypass the Euro-American institutions that have shaped the global economy since World War II. Frustrated with the IMF and World Bank, it created its own development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). China organized BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—countries that don’t want to play by Washington’s rules. While Western powers isolated Putin for invading Ukraine, BRICS welcomed him.
In interviews with Allison, Lee Kuan Yew observed that China has learned from the mistakes of Germany and Japan, which paid dearly for twentieth-century confrontations with the West, and from the Soviet Union, which collapsed because it invested lopsidedly in its military. China bides its time, smiling politely as it remakes the world to its advantage and displaces the U.S. as global superpower.
Allison’s book isn’t about China. It’s about what he calls the “Thucydides trap.” According to the ancient Greek historian, Athens and Sparta clashed in the Peloponnesian Wars because the rise of Athens frightened the Spartans. Allison wants to help America avoid blundering into war with China.
He doesn’t think war is inevitable, but it’s more likely than Americans are willing to contemplate. He examines historical episodes when a rising nation supplanted a dominant ruling power. In twelve of sixteen cases, the two powers went to war.
Allison, though, ignores the growth of Chinese Christianity, which is just as staggering as China’s economic takeoff. As Yu Jie has written in First Things:
- In the seven decades after the Chinese Civil War (1949), the Christian population of China has grown from about 500,000 to sixty million.
- Several million are added to that number each year.
- If present growth continues, there will be 200 million Christians in China by 2030, the largest Christian population of any country in the world.
Allison knows that Christianity can affect geopolitical outcomes. In the late fifteenth century, Spain and Portugal appealed to Pope Alexander VI to mediate their dispute, and Alexander’s solution was backed up by threats of excommunication: “The pope could stave off war because both the Spanish and Portuguese crowns saw their own legitimacy as more important than the balance of power.” Thanks to Alexander, Spain and Portugal didn’t fall into the Thucydides trap.
Christianity is not a magic peace pill. A papal interdict will be useless if China and the U.S. come to blows. And the growth of Chinese Christianity doesn’t guarantee smooth relations with the U.S. A China full of Christians might go to war with an America full of Christians. Christians have, once or twice, killed each other before.
Still, Christianity is a global player of considerable power. It’s a wild card in Sino-American relations, and no analysis of the new global order that ignores it is talking about the real world.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.