Members of China's political elite who are eager for the Middle Kingdom to displace the United States as the world's leading power probably can't believe their good fortune. America has so many natural advantages that such a displacement would normally take several generations, if it occurred at all. Yet clumsy, counterproductive U.S. policies may be shortening that time frame dramatically.
Unlike China, which must contend with multiple great powers (Japan, Russia, and India) in its immediate region, powers that do not especially wish China well, the United States has no serious challengers in its entire hemisphere. Add to that the protection afforded by vast oceanic approaches that the exceptionally capable U.S. Navy and Air Force dominate easily, and a huge nuclear deterrent as an ace in the hole, and the United States is easily the most strategically secure great power in history.
Equally significant, America has an extremely sophisticated, productive economy. Despite its meteoric economic rise over the past three decades, China cannot yet hope to match America's accumulated economic capabilities.
And the American culture is pervasive across the globe. The political values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have inspired populations around the world for more than two centuries. American literature, movies, and music permeate foreign societies — especially appealing to young people in those societies.
But U.S. actions — especially over the past decade — are dissipating many of those precious advantages. And China is the principal beneficiary of such folly.
Washington's spendthrift habits — which have produced annual federal budget deficits exceeding $1.5 trillion — not only weaken America, but give China important diplomatic and economic leverage. China is now the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasury debt. Thus far, Beijing has been subtle about using that leverage, but U.S. officials are all too aware of the vulnerability such dependence creates.
America's expensive military role contributes to the chasm of debt. The combined costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars currently run more than $125 billion a year, and the tally since 2001 is more than $1.2 trillion. And that is just in direct costs to date. Future obligations (for example to wounded veterans) and indirect costs to the American economy may run another $3 trillion or more. Washington's insistence on policing the planet and subsidizing the defense of its European and East Asian allies leads to an overall military budget of more than $700 billion — nearly as much as the rest of the world combined. That is a financial hemorrhage that Beijing can — and does — happily avoid.
Global meddling is also damaging the American brand with respect to political values and even popular culture. That is especially apparent in the Muslim world, where public opinion surveys reveal that positive views of the United States now sometimes languish in the single digits. But America's popularity has waned even in Europe and other formerly very friendly regions. Even as Washington's aggressive behavior alienates populations, especially in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, China is cultivating countries in those regions, portraying itself as a less intrusive, more cooperative political and economic partner.
Many of China's diplomatic and political gains in the international arena are because of America's self-inflicted wounds. Washington's decision to undertake multiple military interventions and nation-building missions, from the Balkans to the Hindu Kush, will probably astonish future historians. If the current mission in Libya becomes something more than a brief affair in which the United States plays a very limited role, that intervention will be added to the growing list of U.S. foreign policy blunders.
Perhaps Chinese nationalists will be lucky, and the U.S. political and policy elite will continue to pursue expensive, bloody chimeras in the Third World and continue to subsidize the defense of free-riding security clients. But it's also possible that more frugal, realistic leadership will emerge in Washington. And if that happens, China's journey down the road toward the status as the world's premier power may encounter some major speed bumps, perhaps even some large potholes.