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In 1997, economists at the International Monetary Fund pointed out that China’s economy was growing so fast it might be bigger than the US economy by 2017.
That didn’t happen.
China’s economy did go gangbusters, however, and its population of more than 1 billion people seemed to assure it would eventually become the world’s biggest market. In 2010, Goldman Sachs estimated that China’s economy could overtake America’s as the world’s largest by 2030. The Economist was bolder, predicting China would become the world’s largest economy by 2019. The shift, whenever it came, would signal that a new economic superpower was ready to challenge US influence everywhere in the world.
Now it looks like that day may never come.
China’s economy has hit the skids in ways that suggest 25 years of supercharged growth may be ending, well before China achieves economic superpower status. China’s economy never powered out of the COVID pandemic the way the US economy did — and it’s barely growing now. Instead of marveling at China’s prosperity miracle, economists are now pondering whether China’s woes will bring down other parts of the global economy.
Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute recently told Reuters that China’s economy is unlikely to eclipse the United States anytime within the next 20 years. Economist Paul Krugman, also a New York Times columnist, likens China to Japan in the early 1990s. That's when runaway growth came to a screeching halt and worries about an Asian nation’s world domination proved wildly unfounded.
Japan, at least, had become a rich country by then. China still isn’t, and it may never join the ranks of so-called advanced economies.
China faces many structural and cyclical problems, including a declining population, likely to make India the world’s most populous country sometime this year or next. China has relied far too heavily on debt-fueled real estate projects to power its growth, which has now produced an ongoing real estate collapse some liken to a “Lehman Brothers moment” for China.
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Meanwhile, the unemployment rate among 16-to-24-year-olds in China has officially risen from 11% in 2018 to 21% now. The real youth unemployment rate might be as high as 46%, according to the Eurasia Group.
China’s communist government has stimulated the economy out of many slowdowns during the last 25 years, but recent efforts, including interest rate cuts and other measures, have underwhelmed investors and triggered stock sell-offs. The slowdown could be chronic. “Given how long we’ll be living with China’s economic struggles, investors will have plenty of time to get up to speed,” Capital Economics advised in an Aug. 21 report.
China’s stagnation could have unexpected effects on global investors, American policymakers, and even US elections.
When Donald Trump first ran for president in 2016, he complained that China was “eating our lunch,” citing record-high US trade deficits with China. As president, Trump imposed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese exports to the United States, hoping to trigger more US manufacturing and cut US reliance on China.
Trump’s trade war with China mostly raised costs on US importers — including consumers — while failing to accomplish its stated goals.
Yet Joe Biden kept those tariffs in place after he became president in 2021. And Biden has gone further. New export controls ban the sale of certain US technologies to China, to inhibit production of advanced military weapons. Bills Biden signed to promote US manufacturing of semiconductors and green energy technology appear to be diverting some investment away from China back to the United States. And a burgeoning trilateral alliance between the United States, Japan, and South Korea is in part an economic bulwark against China’s heft in Asia.
The trajectory of China’s economy is more than a chest-thumping contest.
It matters because China under President Xi Jinping has increasingly become a militant threat to neighbors, including Taiwan, and an antagonist of Western democracies. In the early 2000s, shortly after China joined the World Trade Organization and began its export boom, many Western analysts assumed China’s communist government would become more democratic and friendlier as capitalism made it wealthier. But that hasn’t happened.
Xi, for instance, regularly promises to “reunite” China with Taiwan by invading it. As a coalition of US-led nations sanction Russia over its barbaric war in Ukraine, China has become Russia’s most important ally. It doesn’t yet provide Russia desperately needed military gear, but it is now Russia’s biggest energy customer and it provides Russia many products difficult to get elsewhere because of sanctions.
Politicians in both US political parties become have become aggressive China-bashers. Biden, running for reelection, has violated diplomatic protocol by calling Xi a “dictator.” Trump, the leading GOP contender in the 2024 race despite 91 criminal charges against him, has plans to limit US trade with China even more if he gets elected. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, running a far second in GOP polls behind Trump, recently unveiled an economic vision centered on further reducing China’s economic power.
China isn’t fading into the sunset. It’s a nuclear power that will probably remain the world’s biggest manufacturer for a long time. If it wants to cause trouble, it will continue to have the means to do so.
But China may also have as many gremlins in its own system as it has competitors on the world stage. The US economy, by contrast, remains dynamic and resilient.
American dominance isn't over, yet.
Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman.
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