Support Village Voice News With a Donation of Your Choice.
Hardly a day goes by without one hearing some misconception about the nature of the global power shift. The spectacular rise of China and obvious decline of the United States of America, coupled with Guyana’s love/hate relationship with the latter, usually results in all manner of exaggerated assessments of both these movements. True, American power has waned, but, particularly given Guyana’s geopolitical location, let us not for one moment miscalculate and be encouraged to forget the lessons of the past and their contributions to our still bedraggled condition. Conceptualisations, critiques and actions need to be properly rooted in the extant global ideological and practical realities.
The main challenge is generally seen as coming from China and dissatisfaction with the US is usually voiced in subtle ways. When the US government, having taken a decision to no longer support funding for oil and gas-related projects, vetoed a loan Guyana Shore Base Inc. had requested from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), President Irfaan Alli is reported as stating that the US was blocking the project ‘in a foolish way because we can go to China and get these investments and without the strings attached’ (DW 29/04/2023). One must hope that he was not encouraged by the diplomatically sounding responses he was given!
Minister Robeson Benn is correct in that America ‘is not heaven on earth’, but blemished though it is, many people are daily risking life and limb to be there, and it is this soft power – the thriving of human freedom and opportunities – that autocratic regimes can never replicate, which should be an essential feature of any systems comparisons and relationships.
Everyday discourses are replete with related misconceptions, the most common being that if China places all its US Treasury securities debts on the market, this would increase borrowing cost in the US to a point most harmful to its economy. But the table below indicates that China is not the largest holder of Treasury securities: what it holds is not even one-twentieth of US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and can safely be purchased by the US Federal Reserve Bank. The economist Brad Setser concluded that ‘The U.S. ultimately holds the high cards here: the Fed is the one actor in the world that can buy more than China can ever sell.’
|GDP US$T 2023||GDP per
|US debt US$B
America’s relative power has declined since the 1990s but as Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth argued ‘There is perhaps no more widely accepted truth about the world today than the idea that it is no longer unipolar. … But this view is wrong. … Yes, the United States has become less dominant over the past 20 years, but it remains at the top of the global powers … American power still casts a large shadow across the globe, but it is admittedly smaller than before’ (Pete Ryan’s review of ‘American Power’s Staying Power’ by Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2023).
The metrics that are invoked most frequently in discourses about the decline or rise of countries are GDP and technological and military capacities. The economist Luis Martinez has estimated that Chinese GDP growth in recent decades has been about one-third lower than the officially reported statistics, but that aside, the table above indicates that while China is relatively close to America on that score, it is way back in terms of GDP per capita (per citizen), and this has serious policy making consequences.
For example, China’s expenditure on the military is just above a third that of America and although it has rapidly modernised its armed forces, most analysts sees it as far from being a global equal. Indeed, America has what the political scientist Barry Posen has called, ‘command of the commons’ i.e. control over the air, the open sea, and space, and ‘Until China can contest the United States’ dominance in this domain, it will remain merely a regional military power.’
The ability to make this challenge is based upon 13 categories of systems and in only two areas, cruisers and destroyers and military satellites, does China have more than a third of the US capability. Ryan claimed that the best way to measure technological capacity is to look at payments for the use of intellectual property, and Chinese patent royalties have grown from less than USD1b in 2014 to almost USD12b in 2021. However, it still receives less than a tenth of the USD125b the US does each year and lags far behind Germany’s USD59b and Japan’s USD47b. The United States remains so far ahead – for example, its 68 nuclear submarines, are too quiet for China to track, whereas China’s 12 nuclear submarines remain noisy enough for the US Navy’s advanced antisubmarine warfare sensors to track them in deep water.
Given the US’s technological lead and the sophistication of contemporary weaponry, it will take decades to erode its present position. Gone are the days when the United States’ across-the-board primacy was unmistakable, and this helps to explain why others are now more willing to challenge it. Russia was willing to do so, but US alliances and ‘command of the commons’ has Russia struggling to win a war against a country with an economy one-tenth its own, has greatly undermined its long-term economic prospects and apparently unable to forge an alliance to further its adventure (Ibid).