Issue: 2022: Vol. 21, No. 1

Is the World Ready for China Risen?

Article Author(s)

John Givens

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John Wagner Givens is an Associate Professor in the International Studies Department at Spelman College. He earned his Doctorate in Politics from the University of Oxford and his Masters in Asian Studies from UC Berkeley. He has been interviewed by Grid News, Georgia Public Broadcasting and Chinese Central Television and has published in a variety of venues including: China Quarterly, Global Policy Journal, The Review of Policy Research, Fordham Urban Law Journal, Wisconsin International Law ... 
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Every year since the death of Mao, it has become increasingly clear that China is on the rise and likely – though never certain – to emerge as a superpower. These four-and-a-half decades were not without setbacks, especially the economic troubles of 1989-1990 and the related protests and repression. Yet, between 1977 and 2020 the People’s Republic of China averaged an annual per capita GDP growth rate of more than eight percent. This was not only unprecedented in world history, but the implications for it happening in the most populous country on earth are staggering. Few would have foreseen China’s rise in the 1980s or 1990s. Yet, every year the trends continued, it became a little likelier that the world – especially the United States and other rich democracies – would need to share the globe with a Chinese superpower.

Given this likelihood, I ask whether rich democracies, in particular the United States, adequately prepared for a Chinese superpower – especially as its likelihood increased along with China’s economic and technological development. I take a neutral stance as to whether China’s rise should be seen as an opportunity for a more peaceful and prosperous global future or a threat to the global status quo, the Washington consensus, liberal democracy, or the United States in particular, or somewhere in between. I take this neutral stance because a lack of preparation for China’s rise should be concerning for Panda Huggers and Dragon Slayers alike. Dragon Slayers, hawks who want to work to contain, challenge, or even fight China, could find that the U.S. has not done enough to prepare for a – hopefully – preventable conflict with China, or to check its growing influence. Panda Huggers, doves who would prefer to engage China, might conclude that we have failed to develop expertise and put far too little emphasis on peaceful efforts to cooperate as well as compete economically with China.

There is no checklist to prepare for a rising superpower. Yet, this article will provide a survey of some of the efforts, made and unmade, to prepare for a China-dominant world. Specifically, it will consider military, economic, and educational readiness for a China Century.


China’s rise and the modernization and professionalization of its military have proceeded apace since national defense was included as one of Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations in 1977. While the U.S. military was considering its role as a world policeman in the 1990s and a counterinsurgency force in the 2000s, China was focused on projecting power where it mattered to the PRC, near its borders and surrounding seas, particularly toward Taiwan. In 1996 when the United States and China almost clashed over Taiwan, General John Shalikashvili, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, dismissed the PRC’s ability to invade Taiwan, concluding that “China simply lacked the sealift resources, especially amphibious ships.”1 China’s threat was dismissed as the “million man swim,” a term that is now frequently cited in articles explaining how much the realities of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan have changed since the 1990s.

The U.S. military’s focus, tactics, and doctrine in the decade after the 9/11 attacks were fundamentally mismatched to containing, dissuading, or confronting China. As China forged ahead with its aircraft carrier program, the U.S. Navy contemplated reducing its aircraft carrier groups. Military experts concerned with China argue for the need for weapons and strategies that can block China’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities (A2/AD). Since 2009, the Pentagon has been pushing just such priorities in the form of the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons. Yet, according to Michael Beckley, “[T]he U.S. defense establishment has been slow to adopt this [China] strategy and instead wastes resources on obsolete forces and nonvital missions.”2  While the U.S. has not created a unified strategic vision for how to prepare for China’s rise, it’s not for lack of trying. There have been several proposed Joint Concepts, Strategic Concepts, Expeditionary Warfighting Concepts, and other schemes. Implementation of such grand strategies is expensive, difficult, and time-consuming, and shifts in politics have complicated it further, as have wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Whether its preparation for dealing specifically with China has been as effective or efficient as it could be, the U.S. military enjoys such substantial advantages that it is hard to conclude that this is an area where rich democracies have failed to prepare. Three factors stand out. First, the United States spends almost four times as much on its military as China. Second, aside from Russia, every other major military spender is a close U.S. ally. Third, the Chinese military’s lack of war-fighting experience contrasts sharply with that of the United States, which has, for better or worse, been involved in numerous conventional and unconventional conflicts in recent decades. While we hope the question of whether the U.S. and its allies can handle China militarily will never need to be answered, it seems clear that it is the field in which preparations for China’s rise have been least insufficient.


For those, like this author, who believe it best not to consider China primarily as a military threat and that prophecies about coming conflicts are self-fulfilling, a lack of preparation and investment in non-military areas is more distressing. Headline figures on balance of trade have their place, but do not reflect complex realities such as the U.S. earning a much greater share of the profits than China for every iPhone assembled in the PRC. Direct efforts to “get tough on China” on trade have proved dismal failures; from Obama’s early attempts to Trump’s more recent ones, they have generally hurt the U.S. more than China. Far more problematic than today’s headlines about trade imbalances, therefore, is a reluctance to invest in the research, infrastructure, and education that would help make rich democracies economically competitive with a rising China in the coming decades.

Much of China’s economic success was the result of scrappy small and medium enterprises organized in industrial clusters. Foreign companies and consumers were some of the biggest beneficiaries of that economic success. Yet, the Chinese state has also invested heavily in making China internationally competitive. From 2000 to 2017, Chinese R&D spending increased 17 percent a year compared to 4.3 percent in the U.S. China eclipsed U.S. science spending in 2019.3 The Chinese state also invests in, supports, and protects Chinese companies. As the Wall Street Journal’s Chuin-Wei Yap wrote, “Huawei had access to as much as $75 billion in state support as it grew from a little-known vendor of phone switches to the world’s largest telecom-equipment company.”4 Rich democracies could have maintained an economically productive relationship with China while still preparing for its rise by spending on R&D. Yet until recently, they did not even attempt to keep up. As late as 2020, the U.S. Senate introduced a bill that offered a mere $1 billion for the development of 5G alternatives to Huawei.5

The United States also failed to invest in other areas that could help keep it competitive with China, especially in infrastructure and education. China opened approximately 24,000 miles of high-speed rail between 2008 and 2021 and now accounts for around two-thirds of the world’s total high-speed rail. Europe has less than 6,000 miles and the United States only 34. While U.S. bridges have begun collapsing, China has built around a quarter-of-a-million new bridges since 2010.6 China went from graduating half as many STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, and Math) Ph.Ds. as the United States in 2000 to 50 percent more in 2019.7 Taken together, it seems that China has surpassed the rich democratic world in almost every aspect of investment, that this trend was clear for decades, and that little was done to address it.

There are signs that the momentum is beginning to shift in the space of only a year or two. In December of 2021, the European Union announced its €300 billion Global Gateway scheme (designed to compete with the Belt and Road Initiative). In February of 2022, a dozen former U.S. national security officials from both parties called for the U.S. to pass the $250 billion dollar China competitiveness bill.8 It might appear that rich democracies may have finally woken up to the scale of resources necessary to keep up with China economically both at home and abroad, but there is still reason to be skeptical. The Global Gateway scheme was in part a repackaging of existing investment and aid, and neither the China competitiveness bill nor Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill have yet to pass. Time will tell if these efforts succeed, but for now it appears that the momentum has at last begun to shift and that rich democracies are starting to assess the potential influence of China realistically, if a decade or two late.


Nowhere is the gap between China and rich democracies as evident as in the sphere of education. In 2012, one of the founders of Blackstone private equity group set up the Schwarzman Scholars program to send top U.S. students to study at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, explaining that “China is no longer an elective course, it’s core curriculum.” Yet in most rich democracies, China is not even in the course catalogue. From kindergarten to graduate school, Europe and North America are failing to prepare their students to work and prosper in a century that will be Asia- and China-centric.

Graph 1: K-16 Language Learning in the U.S. 2014-5


Source:  The National K-16 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report

Language education is where preparation for a China-dominant world should begin and where it is most lacking. In 2015, Obama announced the launch of “1 Million Strong,” an initiative aimed at increasing U.S. learners of Chinese to one million by the year 2020. “If our countries are going to do more together around the world,” said Obama, “then speaking each other’s languages, truly understanding each other, is a good place to start.”9 Yet, Chinese language education has not seen the investment and interest that would allow for anything like this goal to be reached. The most recent comprehensive data from a 2017 National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report (Graph 1), shows that less than seven percent of high schools in the U.S. offered Chinese and that it came in as the fourth most-studied language, barely beating out Latin. In higher education the numbers are worse, with Chinese the seventh most-studied language (Graph 2).

Graph 2: Higher Education Enrollment in Modern Languages

China Risen2

Source:  The National K-16 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report

Nor are failures in Chinese language education limited to the United States. Two years after the first Mandarin immersion school attempted to open in Germany, difficulty with state regulation forced them to settle for Chinese three times a week, despite immersion schools already existing in French, English, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, and Russian. By contrast, China is learning English at a prodigious rate and hundreds of thousands of Chinese students flock to the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, and other rich democracies for everything from high school diplomas to doctorates. While the number of U.S. students studying in China rose steeply in the early 2000s, in line with the Obama administration’s goals, the numbers then plateaued and began to decline in the mid 2010s. By 2019, more U.S. students studied in Ireland than in China (Graph 3).

Graph 3: U.S. Students Study Abroad Destinations 1999-2019

China Risen3

Source: Open Doors – Institute of International Education

Across a variety of departments, most universities do not have the expertise and faculty necessary to provide sufficient offerings related to China or Asia more generally. Beyond language, a trend away from area studies exacerbated a lack of expertise in China. One might expect political science, economics, business, history, and other departments to stock up on China experts as they did on Soviet specialists during the Cold War. But most seem satisfied with a single expert on East Asia (many of whom are actually Korea and/or Japan specialists). There appear to be fewer China-focused jobs in U.S. political science departments every year. In 2021, only a handful of U.S.-based China-focused jobs were advertised in political science, and these were primarily focused on security.

What makes this failure to invest in Chinese language education look even worse is the rejection of one of the few low-cost resources for education in Chinese, Confucius Institutes. CIs have been forced out of U.S. universities even though a bipartisan congressional commission determined that there is “no evidence that these [Confucius] institutes are a center for Chinese espionage efforts or any other illegal activity.”10 China spent more than $158 million on U.S. Confucius Institutes from 2006 to 2019, but after peaking at 103 in 2017, universities began to reject them and by the end of 2021, and only 31 remained. If China was really such a concern that the CIs had to go, then surely the lost investment in language training should be replaced, many times over, by funding from other sources.

Failing to build a robust Asia curriculum is inexcusable, even in tough budgetary times, because developing substantial infrastructure and profound expertise takes decades. From intelligence gathering to business, children well-versed in the languages and cultures of China and its neighbors are the best hope for rich democracies to compete with and relate to a rising China, but these are investments that will take decades to reap rewards. If rich democracies invest heavily in education programs related to Asia starting today, they will begin to see the results in a decade or two.

Yet, unlike the categories considered above, education seems to be an area in which rich democracies are not even slowing the pace at which they are falling behind. In part this is due to increasingly negative attitudes about China. While this may be understandable given increasingly negative rhetoric about China in the media as well as PRC policies such as the repression of Muslims, it seems to be self-defeating. If China is important enough to attract widespread suspicion, then it ought to be worth learning about. Students who hear ominous things about China could choose to study in Taiwan or Singapore or even Korea or Japan.


Considering the three areas – military, economics, and education – the U.S. and its rich democratic allies have largely, though not completely, failed to prepare for a world in which China is a, if not the, superpower. But preparations have been uneven and some of the areas demonstrate more foresight and investment than others. It is difficult to know whether the United States and its allies are prepared to deal with the rise of China militarily, but in line with generally substantial U.S. military spending and investment it seems clear that this is where preparations have been the most thorough, or perhaps the least neglected. Economically, both at home in the form of R&D support and abroad in terms of offering alternatives to China’s investment, there are clear signs of inadequate preparation and a shift in momentum. In the field of education, there are not even signs of concern as rich democracies fall further and further behind. In the next piece I will consider why, despite the relative predictability of China’s rise, rich democracies seem to have been caught so flat-footed.

  1. Barton Gellman, “U.S. AND CHINA NEARLY CAME TO BLOWS IN ’96,” Washington Post, June 21, 1998,
  2.  Michael Beckley, “America Is Not Ready for a War With China,” June 11, 2021,
  3.  Giuliana Viglione, “China Is Closing Gap with United States on Research Spending,” Nature, January 15, 2020,
  4. Chuin-Wei Yap, “State Support Helped Fuel Huawei’s Global Rise,” Wall Street Journal, December 25, 2019, sec. Tech,
  5. John Wagner Givens and Debra Lam, “Smarter Cities or Bigger Brother? How the Race for Smart Cities Could Determine the Future of China, Democracy, and Privacy Symposium: Urban Intelligence and the Emerging City,” Fordham Urban Law Journal 47, no. 4 (2020 2019): 829–82.
  6. “2020 Statistical Bulletin on the Development of the Transportation Industry (年交通运输行业发展统计公报_部门政务_中国政府网),” accessed February 3, 2022,
  7. “China Is Fast Outpacing U.S. STEM PhD Growth,” Center for Security and Emerging Technology (blog), accessed February 3, 2022,
  8. “2020 Statistical Bulletin on the Development of the Transportation Industry (年交通运输行业发展统计公报_部门政务_中国政府网),” accessed February 3, 2022,
  9. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “Can 1 Million American Students Learn Mandarin?,” Foreign Policy (blog), accessed August 30, 2021,
  10. Jamie P. Horsley, “It’s Time for a New Policy on Confucius Institutes,” Brookings (blog), April 1, 2021,