If there is one issue on which the rival candidates for the U.S. presidency agree, it's that America's global leadership will endure. Mitt Romney insists it is not a "post-American century," while Barack Obama declared in his State of the Union address that "anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about."
They must enjoy this kind of chest-beating in Beijing.
That a resurgent China poses a challenge to American power -- especially in the Asia-Pacific region -- has been clear for some time to those who know what they're talking about. The real question is whether the United States has a credible response. Should it apply some version of the "containment theory" that the late George Kennan recommended for dealing with the Soviet challenge after 1945? Or something more subtle, like the "co-evolution" suggested by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger?
Leave aside the military and diplomatic calculus and consider only the economic challenge China poses to the United States. This is not just a matter of scale, though it is no small matter that, according to the IMF, China's GDP will overtake that of the United States within four years on the basis of purchasing power parity. Nor is it only about the pace of China's growth, though any Asian exporter forced to choose between China and America would be inclined to choose the former; their trade with China is growing far more rapidly than trade with the United States.
No, according to some commentators, the contest between the two Asian superpowers is also fundamentally a contest between economic models: market capitalism vs. state capitalism. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos this January, David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group expressed a widely held view that the Chinese model of state capitalism is pulling ahead of the U.S. market model. "We've got to work through these problems," Rubenstein said. "If we don't do [so], in three or four years … the game will be over for the type of capitalism that many of us have lived through and thought was the best type." I think this view is dead wrong. But it's interesting to see why so many influential people now subscribe to it.
Market capitalism has certainly had a rough five years. Remember the Washington Consensus? That was the to-do list of 10 economic policies designed to Americanize emerging markets back in the 1990s. The U.S. government and international financial institutions urged countries to impose fiscal discipline and reduce or eliminate budget deficits, broaden the tax base and lower tax rates, allow the market to set interest and exchange rates, and liberalize trade and capital flows. When Asian economies were hit by the 1997-1998 financial crisis, American critics were quick to bemoan the defects of "crony capitalism" in the region, and they appeared to have economic history on their side.
Yet today, in the aftermath of the biggest U.S. financial crisis since the Great Depression, the world looks very different. Not only did the 2008-2009 meltdown of financial markets seem to expose the fundamental fragility of the capitalist system, but China's apparent ability to withstand the reverberations of Wall Street's implosion also suggested the possibility of a new "Beijing Consensus" based on central planning and state control of volatile market forces.
In this system, governments use various kinds of state-owned companies to manage the exploitation of resources that they consider the state's crown jewels and to create and maintain large numbers of jobs. They use select privately owned companies to dominate certain economic sectors. They use so-called sovereign wealth funds to invest their extra cash in ways that maximize the state's profits. In all three cases, the state is using markets to create wealth that can be directed as political officials see fit. And in all three cases, the ultimate motive is not economic (maximizing growth) but political (maximizing the state's power and the leadership's chances of survival). This is a form of capitalism but one in which the state acts as the dominant economic player and uses markets primarily for political gain.