This post first appeared on China Real Time Report.
In his new book, “Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance,” scheduled to be published in September, Peterson Institute for International Economics scholar Arvind Subramanian starts with a nightmare scenario: It’s 2021 and the U.S. president heads across town to the International Monetary Fund to sign a rescue loan package negotiated by the IMF’s Chinese managing director. “The handover of world dominance is complete,” Mr. Subramanian, a former IMF researcher, writes. China is now the world’s leading economic power.
Parts of “Eclipse” read like a wonky version of “Rising Sun,” Michael Crichton’s 1992 novel of Japanese dominance over the U.S. when Tokyo was seen as speeding toward number one. But Mr. Subramanian is a first-class economist who uses his book to discuss provocatively U.S.-Chinese relations and the nature of economic power. He was interviewed in Washington by The Wall Street Journal’s Bob Davis. Below is an edited transcript.
Do you really think the U.S. eventually will have to turn, hat-in-hand to the IMF for aid?
I wrote it that way partly to shock and make people pay attention. But there is a real possibility of the U.S. being in such a dire economic situation that it might have to turn to the IMF.
How could it happen? The combination of a credible rising power in China, with which we have to cooperate and also be wary of. And broad economic weakness in the U.S., including slow growth, fiscal weakness, political paralysis and a middle class with diminishing prospects.
The probability of U.S. needing an IMF loan isn’t 80% but it’s not 2% or 5% either. It’s a 10% or 20% possibility.
By some of the measures you use, China already is a larger economy than the U.S. But haven’t you picked economic statistics that play to China’s advantage? For example relying on purchasing power parity to measure GDP. (Purchasing power parity, or PPP, is a statistical device that tries to take account of the different prices of goods and services in different countries.)
PPP is an important concept, but it has a small weight in my overall formula of economic power.
I believe that the resources a country brings to the power table includes resources that are internationally traded and resources that involve people. If the U.S. were to fight against China and 100 Chinese soldiers faced 100 US soldiers, would you say that because the 100 Chinese soldiers earn/20th of what an American soldier earns that the value of a Chinese soldier is 1/20th the value of American? I don’t think so. (PPP tries to account for such anomalies.)
You also say that China will be a far larger economic power than the U.S. by 2020 or certainly 2030, even if China’s growth rate falls significantly or the U.S’s rises significantly. Why is that?
The way economic convergence between the U.S. and China is evolving, the fact that China will catch up is inevitable. At end of 20 years, China will have a GDP per capita of only 40-50% of the U.S. But China has four times the population of the U.S., so the Chinese economy will be much larger overall. The arithmetic is undeniable.
China will have an economic crisis over the next 20 years, no doubt. But it will recover and return to some decent level of growth.
If China has a big economic shock, it has the policy space [including the ability to broadly stimulate the economy] to prevent one or two years of negative growth from translating into many years of slow growth.
What’s the significance of China as number one?
Potentially, China has the ability to exercise its power in slightly unbenign ways. Look at what’s happening today on exchange rate. [By keeping its currency undervalued] China is pursuing a beggar–they- neighbor policy and nobody can stop them. That’s sign of dominance.
The U.S. is totally powerless to stop China because U.S. companies have so much at stake in China that China can call the shots. Asia won’t do it because Asian economies are part of a value-added chain with China. Africa won’t do it because China has made so much investment there..
Imagine what happens when the numbers [denoting the size of the economy] diverge even more between China and the U.S.
Still, China would be a relatively poor country compared to the U.S. How can a poor country exercise power internationally?
Very poor countries can’t dominate. There’s now no way to project power abroad because the problems at home are so deep. But so-called middle income countries like China may be different.
There are different kinds of dominance. There is dominance of the U.S. – a leader that’s democratic and pursues international values and which inspires followship. Maybe China won’t have that. But it could exercise a negative form of dominance, either through its exchange rate policy or by buying up commodities [to corner markets].
What’s the biggest threat to China’s rise to economic dominance?
A political shock to system. Then all bets are off.
A political transition [to a more democratic system] hasn’t occurred. It’s a cloud that hangs over everything. There’s class divide, geographic divide, lack of political freedom. If they wind up in conflagration, things could go really bad.
In your book, you talk about the importance of tethering China to a multilateral system. Why should China be interested if it’s inevitably number one?
We need to bind China today to the multilateral system so a kind of habit and incentive builds up. Then repudiation of the system would be more difficult. We need to do this before China becomes a hegemon
Everyone has to come together to do this well. If every country tries to make its own deal with China, no one will have any leverage.
Think about exchange rates. If the world came together now and said let’s do a deal on exchange rates, China would be more likely to participate. It doesn’t want to be seen as deviant from international system. The opprobrium of the world is the biggest carrot and stick to use with China.
One of your main policy recommendations is to start a China round of trade negotiations. What could that accomplish?
When China joined World Trade Organization in 2001, people said we tied China to the global economic system (because of the commitments it made to open its markets and follow international rules). But through its exchange rate policy, China has unraveled parts of its commitments. What that signifies is that Chinese leaders at the time were overreaching in terms of domestic political support. Evidently, WTO accession wasn’t politically sustainable internally.
Over time, China will move away from mercantilism. They would then have an incentive to make a deal. A deal could involve government procurement – other countries opening their bidding for China–as well as commitments by China involving control of natural resources and the exchange rate.