By Ian Bremmer
The views expressed are his own.
One of the biggest changes we’ve seen in the world since the 2008 financial crisis can be summed up in one sentence: Security is no longer the primary driver of geopolitical developments; economics is. Think about this in terms of the United States and its shifting place as the superpower of the world. Since World War II, the U.S.’s highly developed Department of Defense has ensured the security of the country and indeed, much of the free world. The private sector was, well, the private sector. In a free market economy, companies manage their own affairs, perhaps with government regulation, but not with government direction. More than sixty years on, perhaps that’s why our military is the most technologically advanced in the world while our domestic economy fails to create enough jobs and opportunities for the U.S. population.
Contrast the U.S. and its free market economy with China’s system. For years now, that country has experienced double digit growth. Many observers would say that China’s embrace of capitalism since 1978, and especially since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, has been responsible for its boom. They would be mostly wrong. In fact, a new study prepared for the U.S. government says it’s not capitalism that’s powering China, but state capitalism -- China’s massive, centrally directed industrial policy, where the government positions huge amounts of capital and labor in economic sectors it intends to nurture. The study, prepared by consultants Capital Trade for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, reads in part:
In a world in which central planning has been so utterly discredited, it would be natural to conclude that the Chinese government and, by extension, the Chinese Communist Party have been abandoning the institutions associated with the communist economic system, such as reliance on state‐owned enterprises (SOEs), as fast as possible. Such conclusion would be wrong.
In a G-zero world where no country can claim the mantle of international leadership, China has pulled an accomplished head fake. While the media focuses on China’s special economic zones, like Hong Kong and Macau, and the rise of the banker class and Chinese tech industry, state directed spending is the real engine of growth. Capital invested in infrastructure like factories, heavy industry, roadways, and high speed trains continues to power annual double digit growth in GDP. Reliable data from 2004 shows that 76% of Chinese non-financial firms are classified as State Owned Enterprises (firms with government ownership of greater than 10%).
In short, while the U.S. has spent decades and vast treasure building up its defense system (and yes, by extension, the sectors of the economy that service it), China has spent its time and money building up control over the broad direction of its entire economy. In today’s world, where the first sentence of this essay rings true, which country currently looks better positioned to, pardon the pun, capitalize, in the years ahead?