Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, has authored a series of reports on the rivalry between China and the United States in terms of economics, military might, technology, diplomacy, and ideology. Allison spoke on the PolicyCast podcast earlier in the year about a few aspects of this rivalry. Following are excerpts from that conversation.
The biggest international story in the world today, and for the foreseeable future, is China. Never before has a nation risen so far, so fast, on so many different dimensions. And the most significant challenge to the United States today is the rise of China and its impact on the international order.
The Chinese vision is, “We are inexorably rising. You are irreversibly declining.” That’s it; that’s the grand narrative. There’s a different view, which is, “We in the United States believe our democracy and market economy are going to perform better, because we don’t believe a party-led autocracy can govern a society successfully for so long.”
Who is the manufacturing workshop of the world? Who is every country’s number one trading partner? Who provides the most critical links in supply chains? The answer to all these questions is China. China manufactures more than twice the amount of items that the United States does. China has defined a new world economic order. In the economic realm, the degree of interdependence between the United States and China is such that if you should have a total breakdown of relations between the two countries, Chinese factories would be producing items that they wouldn’t have any place to send to, and Walmarts would be empty. A total breakdown in economic relations would have a huge negative impact on both societies and would probably lead to a global recession. On the current trajectory, by 2030 China will have a GDP twice the size of that of the United States, rising to three times as large by 2040.
Most people simply can’t believe how rapidly China has closed the gap in so many technological arenas, even to the point of surpassing the United States in some. Let’s take 5G as an example. You can’t watch TV without being inundated by claims from cell phone service providers that we have the best, fastest, and most reliable service. However, 5G in most parts of the United States is as slow as 4G. Whereas you get five times that speed in Beijing or Shanghai. In China, 160 million people, equivalent to about half the U.S population, live in a 5G world now. What are the consequences of that going to be?
Quantum and AI are two other examples I deal with in a Belfer Center paper I published in December, “The Great Rivalry: China vs. the U.S. in the 21st Century.” Artificial intelligence is the tool that technologists believe is most likely to have transformational impacts on the U.S. economy and security in the next 20 years. China is ahead of the United States in the areas of facial recognition, voice recognition, comprehensive surveillance, and fintech. There are other areas where the United States is ahead—for example, in enterprise technology. However, in most areas it is a genuine race.
In the quantum arena, two or three American companies—including Google and Microsoft—are leading the development of this technology, but the Chinese have made huge strides, as I describe in my paper. So, what could this mean? Well, in each one of these arenas, as we’ve seen historically, you can have technological arms races in which the rivals strive to get ahead of each other. However, it is hard to get a decisive advantage, and the technologies proliferate quite quickly. It’s a challenge to have a permanent advantage when there is no clear end to the race. At the same time, if a country “wins” the technical arms race, the consequences are significant. In the quantum space, the consequences for the intelligence community as well as for potential military conflicts would be very severe. Similarly, in the AI space, the potential military and security arena applications are significant, and the consequences could be huge.
Graham Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard University and former dean of HKS.