This US Navy photo shows the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer, and ships from the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group under way in formation while conducting security and stability operations in the US 7th Fleet area of operations on October 6, 2019, in the South China Sea. Photo: Erwin Jacob V Miciano MICIANO / Navy Office of Information / AFP

The United States “is no longer qualified to speak to us from a position of strength,” crowed the imperious senior diplomat from the People’s Republic of China, to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a particularly frosty meeting in Anchorage, Alaska.

Much to the Joe Biden administration’s credit, it appears to be taking the potential threat that China poses the United States more seriously than it did during the contentious 2020 presidential campaign. 

Yet one must ask an uncomfortable question: What if China’s representatives are correct? As my colleague David P Goldman reports, “American influence is fragile in several key Eurasian nodal points and China has the capacity to hurt the United States in retaliation for American efforts to build an alliance to contain it.”

In other words, as America spastically pivots to Asia, China judiciously swings toward its west – and the reason that China is even attractive to the powers along its western periphery is China’s increasing power.

Part of the problem is perception. The way that American policymakers measure national power is insufficient for the 21st century. Chinese scholars, in my opinion, have developed a much better method to analyze the competitive power of a nation-state.

Known as “zonghe gouli,” or the “comprehensive national power” (CNP) assessment, China’s methodology for measuring the nation’s power relative to those of its competitors helps to explain how China has evolved into a serious challenger to the United States and its allies over the last 30 years. American analysts should study the CNP methodology and apply that when assessing US power relative to that of its competitors. 

During the Cold War, the Soviets used a similar methodology, which they referred to as the “correlation of forces.” This kind of analysis would help policymakers devise better strategies for responding to the all-of-society challenges emanating from China (and elsewhere). 

One notable version of the CNP comes from Chinese scholar Huang Shuogeng. Huang’s variant comprises a “material or hard power index (such as economic wealth, natural resources, science and technology, military might); spirit or soft power index (such as political power, foreign affairs, culture, education); coordinated power index (such as line of command, leadership in policy decision-making); and finally, environmental index (such as international environment).”

Beyond that, Huang’s version of the CNP assessment has an “appraisal index system,” which includes national strategy goals, political stability, and decision-making capabilities.

Huang long argued that the United States would remain the world’s pre-eminent power from 2000 until 2020. He predicted that by 2020, China would be second. This certainly appears to be a prescient analysis conducted over many years by Huang and his fellow scholars of national power at China’s Academy of Military Science (AMS). 

The CNP model notwithstanding, since 2014, China became the largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP). In GDP terms, China is currently the second-largest economy, although it is expected to displace the United States as the largest economy this decade.

Despite China being the original source of Covid-19, China was the only economy to grow in 2020. Further, the International Monetary Fund assesses that China’s economy will surpass the United States in growth in 2021.

American tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk believe that China will become the world’s largest economy this decade. This is a far cry from a decade ago, when many Western analysts were warning of China’s coming collapse.

There are certainly downsides to China’s rapid development that could impinge on long-term growth, although these negative effects have yet to be fully experienced, as evidenced by China’s continued growth. 

And, as recent events have shown, the United States itself is not immune from internal collapse.

It all comes down to relative national strength. Yes, the United States has an overwhelmingly strong military … on paper. With less than 1% of the American population serving in the all-volunteer force (AVF) at any given time, and with the capabilities of rival powers increasing every year, the question must be asked: How reliable will America’s military supremacy be over time? 

What’s more, how potent can America’s comprehensive national power remain?

The US military itself is highly dependent on technology to amplify its relatively small size. It requires constant additional funding to upgrade its technological accoutrements and the relatively small expeditionary force is always being stretched.

Despite the size of its budget, the military cannot keep up with current force requirements, let alone possibly take on a rising great-state competitor like China – or, heaven forbid, a coalition of authoritarian Eurasian powers. Former secretary of defense Robert Gates was correct when he cautioned that any future American leader who wants to fight a land war in Eurasia “ought to have his head examined.” 

But as China’s comprehensive national power grows – and ultimately outstrips – America’s, and if the United States wants to retain its dominant position in the world system, that is precisely what may happen.

China’s population is becoming more educated in strategically critical fields (science, technology, engineering and math) than are Americans. The Chinese are far more patriotic than their American competitors are. The Chinese infrastructure is more advanced than that of the United States. 

In the hit series Game of Thrones, the treacherous character Littlefinger admonishes the villainous Cersei Lannister that “knowledge is power.” Yet Littlefinger’s actual power, in spite of his vast knowledge, is insignificant. Cersei counters his quip with an actual display of military force during which she explains that “power is power.” 

In the 21st century, however, it is clear that knowledge is the basis of capabilities … and greater capabilities allow for greater power over one’s rivals. This is the foundation of the CNP assessment and why China’s rise over the next decade should worry Americans today.

Brandon J Weichert

Brandon J Weichert is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower. He is a geopolitical analyst who manages The Weichert Report: World News Done Right. His work appears regularly in The Washington Times and Real Clear Politics. Weichert is a former US congressional staffer who holds an MA in statecraft and national security affairs from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, and is an associate member of New College, Oxford University.