Who's top? The myth and reality between China and US rivalry that will surprise many Africans

Not even close: In 2013 the US earned $128 billion for the use of its intellectual property. China in the same year received less than $1 billion

CHINESE state councillor Yang Jiechi has been visiting the region as he looks to crystallise the pledges made by president Xi Jinping at December’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), held for the first time on African soil.

Despite the billions in aid and trade that are announced to much fanfare at every sitting of the triennial summit—$60 billion in South Africa—the criticism has tended to be that only a fraction is translated into visible projects.

Yang’s position is a powerful one— he is one of five state councillors who sit just below the country’s vice premiers, and who outrank cabinet ministers. As such he has been received by presidents at each of his stops, which included Chad and Senegal.

Responsible for overseas Chinese affairs, he was also ubiquitously present when Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari visited Beijing last month, seeking funding for a struggling expansionary record budget, bringing home a loan of $6 billion and a currency swap deal. 

‘Look East’ policy

Africa’s “Look East” policy has generally been interpreted as a pivot mainly to China to counter western influence in the region, and as a bargaining chip for development projects. Beijing, quick to seize the opportunity, has in recent years acquired a larger-than-life persona in the region, including by surpassing the US as Africa’s largest trading partner, becoming a major aid donor, and funding and constructing mega-infrastructure projects.

It is not by any means constant—it was at a high during the Great Recession in 2008 as the American economy struggled and China’s hummed along, but the tables are currently turned as Beijing struggles to rebalance its economy, and the American economy enjoys a purple patch.

Statistics such as those from the International Monetary Fund which show that the Asian country is now the world’s largest economy on a purchasing-power-parity basis have helped further the argument, as China roiled a significant part of the African economy by cutting back on resource imports.

China is now a top 10 trading partner of more than 100 economies—which together account for 80% of world GDP—a sizeable number in Africa, and despite the slowdown, has consistently outpaced the US in annual economic growth—and will by many measures do so for years to come.

As such, many in Africa have tended to postulate that China could soon eclipse the US as the dominant superpower, with major surveys showing a close gap between the two states in the so-called battle for the continent’s heart.

‘Wishful thinking’

In the arena of hard power, it has followed that it is just a matter of China developing and buying up the arms it needs using its vast economic resources to enable it challenge the US on equal footing, many drawing on the argument taught in many international relations classes that economic power begets military power. 

But in an essay (subscription required) for the influential Foreign Affairs journal, Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth argue that such a scenario is “wishful, or fearful, thinking.”

While acknowledging China is the only country with the raw potential to become a true global peer of the US, and that American economic superiority has eroded from its peak, the scholars seek argue that China’s triumph is not yet here.

“Economic growth no longer translates as directly into military power as it did in the past, which means that it is now harder than ever for rising powers to rise and established ones to fall,” they write.

According to them, Beijing faces an even more daunting hurdle—that in addition to lacking the globe-spanning alliance structure that is the core of the existing liberal international order,  it is technologically almost light years behind the US.

“Rather than expecting a power transition in international politics, everyone should start getting used to a world in which the United States remains the sole superpower for decades to come,” they say, Their work is part of a forthcoming book, America Abroad: The United States’ Global Role in the 21st Century.

Essentially, China is equipped to be the major player only in its immediate region.

African leaders at the China-Africa summit in Johannesburg in 2015.

The authors further highlight the gap between the two countries.  While China ships out lots of containers of high-tech goods, half of Chinese exports are of parts imported into the country for assembly and then sent out. Additionally, the “vast majority” of these exports are overseen by firms from more developed countries—think Apple products made in Chinese factories.

The US also leads as the source of innovative technologies, earning $128 billion in 2013 for the use of its intellectual property. China in the same year received less than $1 billion, they note.

In the year before, some 14,000 triadic patents—those registered for the same invention in the US, Europe and Japan—originated from the US; in contrast China had about 2,000. They also say that US articles are cited eight times more in science and engineering, and that since 1990, researchers based in the US have accounted for 114 Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine. In the same period, China-based researchers have been awarded two.

GDP issues

The use of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) also underestimates the gap between the two, the writers say, including that it is a measure that does not account for knowledge-based and globalised economies as well as it does for manufacturing-based ones.

They point out that inclusive wealth, a new statistic developed by the UN and which instead of measuring flows as GDP does measures a country’s stock of assets in three key areas, finds the US has $144 trillion worth of inclusive wealth, to China’s $32 trillion.

Washington has also spent decades building its ability to operate globally—including its much-valued “command of the commons”—control of the air, space and open sea, and the accompanying infrastructure.

While China has been pumping money into research and development (R&D), it is not nearly enough: in 2012 the US spent $79 billion on military R&D, or 13 times China’s outlay. Weapons also take decades to develop and deploy, and require a certain level of flexibility, which China’s rigid centralised system does not allow, Brooks and Wohlforth further argue.

Beijing for example cannot mass deploy high-performance aircraft despite spending immense resources, while in some areas such as undersea warfare it has not bothered competing.

Additionally, the kind of international geopolitical environment—such as the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union— that incentivised the US to develop its far-reaching military capabilities do not exist at the moment.

While not exactly purgatory, their conclusion is that China will for some time dangle between being a great power and a super power, but it “still has a long way to go before it might gain the economic and technological capacity to become a superpower”.

Essentially, the US is still very much in charge of its own destiny, boosted by a “who’s who” list of allies. But how Washington wields this power will determine if it remains unchallenged,  the professors say.

While they admit the US has had its fair share of foreign misadventures in recent years, such as Iraq, they argue that the country has done a much better job of keeping the international system stable—including reducing the odds of a global war or a much more dangerous world developing—than its critics (including Donald Trump) are ready to admit.

As such, it cannot afford to pull back from its engagement with the rest of the world to focus on domestic policy as many are pushing for, but must tread a tightrope to ensure that while it does not overreact to peripheral challenges to its power, it continues to keep its eye on its overall strategic goals.

Challenging a settled status of quo is hard to do, and as such the “chief threat lies within” they say. But while they note that the margin of error for the US has notably shrunk, its superpower status is very much alive and kicking.

One suspects that few African leaders will be as bothered by the power permutations as long as they can extract the maximum concessions from each—from China delivering on a vote-bagging mega-project, to Washington looking the other way from their governance transgressions as it seeks to protect its interests.

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