China will be No. 1. But what are the implications? asks Asia Sentinel’s Kishore Mahbubani
US leaders dare not admit it, but China’s poised to become the largest economy. Long before anyone did, former US president Bill Clinton saw that America would have to prepare for the time when it would no longer be the No. 1 power in the world. In his 2003 Yale University address on “Global Challenges,” he said:
If you believe that maintaining power and control and absolute freedom of movement and sovereignty is important to your country’s future, there’s nothing inconsistent in that [the US continuing to behaving unilaterally]. [The US is] the biggest, most powerful country in the world now… But if you believe that we should be trying to create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behavior that we would like to live in when we’re no longer the military political economic superpower in the world, then you wouldn’t do that. It just depends on what you believe.
Long before 2003, Clinton wanted to begin preparing Americans for this new world. “Clinton believed […] what we had in the wake of the cold war was a multilateral moment – an opportunity to shape the world through our active leadership of the institutions Clinton admired and [Charles] Krauthammer disdained,” writes Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state in his book The Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation. “But Clinton kept that belief largely to himself while he was in office…. political instincts told him it would be inviting trouble to suggest that the sun would someday set on American preeminence.”
Sadly, few Americans have heeded Clinton’s wisdom. Few dare to mention that America could well be No. 2. I discovered this when I chaired a panel on “The Future of American Power” at the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos. After citing projections that America would have the second largest economy in just a few years, I asked the American panelists – two senators, a congresswoman and a former deputy national security advisor – whether Americans are ready to become No. 2. To my shock, none could acknowledge publically this possibility.
America may well become No. 2 faster than anyone has anticipated. According to the most recent International Monetary Fund projections, China will have larger share of global GDP than the United States by 2017. In 1980, in PPP terms, the US share of the global economy was 25 percent, while China’s was 2.2 percent. By 2017, the US share will decline to 17.9 percent, and China’s will rise to 18.3 percent.
Even if America becomes No. 2 , we will still have a better world. In many ways, the world is “converging” to American values and standards, as I explain in The Great Convergence. The global middle class is booming, interstate war is waning and never before have people traveled and communicated across the world so easily. These changes are creating common values and norms across the world. Education and scientific reasoning, for example, are enabling people the world over to speak with a common language.
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