President Xi Jinping’s trip to the United States in September 2015 was more important than your average Chinese state visit. To be fair, prior to the visit there was a real danger – though no inevitability – that the US-China relationship might begin to spiral out of control. A mounting list of American and Chinese concerns, ranging from the South China Sea to cybersecurity and more, were beginning to build up immense pressure on each respective leadership to adopt a tougher posture. It is a tribute to both leaders that they resisted and instead sought to identify new areas of strategic cooperation, for example on climate change, while recognizing the real and significant disagreements that remain between them.
Of course, tensions exist in US-China relations. And they are clearly growing. Part of the structural tensions in the relationship boil down purely to mathematics. When China’s gross domestic product eventually surpasses that of the United States it will reflect a profound shift in the center of global economic gravity. There is a legitimate debate about the timing of this transition in economic power and a related concern about a range of structural challenges that Chinese policy makers now face. Nonetheless, even with a more modest growth rate during the next decade, the sheer size that the Chinese economy has already achieved means the question we face is not one of “if” the Chinese economy outgrows the American economy, but “when” and by how much.
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