China Now World’s 2nd Largest Economy: Ho Hum

China is now officially the world’s second largest economy, overtaking Japan in the quarter that ended in June and likely for all of 2010. While the story has been widely reported (more than 1,500 articles on Google News this morning), it is less significant than it first appears.

The news will probably ruffle the feathers of the China hawks, who will see in it a threat to America’s influence in the world, but China’s rise to no. 2 is really another sign of the world returning to normal.

China is home, after all, to one-fifth of mankind. Its population of 1,330 million is more than 10 times that of Japan (127 million) and more than four times that of the United States (310 million), according to the CIA Factbook. So even though China’s gross domestic product is now larger than Japan’s, its GDP per capita is still only one tenth that of its east Asian neighbor.

If China sticks to its path of market liberalization, it’s close to inevitable that its GDP economy will eventually surpass that of the United States in overall size. That news event is likely to grab headlines in 15 to 20 years based on current rates of growth. Even then, China’s per capita GDP will only be a quarter of what we enjoy in the United States.

China’s rank as no. 1 will be nothing new in history. According to the late British economic historian Angus Maddison, China’s economy had been the largest in the world for most of the past two millennia. In his magisterial 2001 book The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, Maddison estimated that as recently as 1820 China’s GDP was 30 percent larger than the economies of Western Europe and the United States combined (p. 117).

After centuries of war, civil strife, and self-imposed isolation, China is only now rightfully reclaiming its rank as one of the world’s largest economies. That development is nothing to be feared.