I was recently honored to participate in a China economic forum at the University of Chicago, my alma mater. The event was held in the building where my wife and I had our first date. In my opening comments, I expressed the wish that the location of the event would be a good omen for long, positive relations between the two countries.
That wish certainly seemed to be shared by those in attendance. But relations between the world’s two largest economies have become more complicated recently, and not solely because of regime change in Washington. Ultimately, the fortunes of China and America are closely intertwined. It would be difficult to foresee success for one at the expense of the other.
On the surface, China continues to outperform expectations. It has sustained a high rate of economic growth for longer than most other developing countries. China has come to dominate markets for many commodities, has lifted 500 million people out of poverty in the last 35 years, and its One Belt One Road project aims to spend trillions on infrastructure across 65 countries. With the United States pulling back somewhat from international engagement, China has projected itself as the world’s leading proponent of globalization.
China’s progress has, at least on the surface, been remarkably steady. It isn’t uncommon for emerging economies to have a setback or two on the way to prosperity; development can be haphazard as markets and institutions mature. China, however, learned from the examples of its neighbors, and has managed its growth very carefully.
Among the lessons China took closest to heart was to open up slowly. Nations that release market influences and accept international capital flows too soon can experience volatility that is damaging to nascent economic structures. China has limited the influence of these forces and built substantial reserves as another bulwark against financial instability.
China’s progress has to a large degree been made on the back of manufacturing and exports. But in recent years, this sector has been challenged by sharp competition from other countries (many of them China’s regional neighbors) and slow global demand. The growth of industrial output in China has slowed and the amount of overcapacity has risen.