Vietnam Academy Of Social Sciences

Some Reviews of China's Economic Power in Current Period


Nguyen Quang Thuan*, Hoang The Anh**


Abstract: The article examines China’s economic power in relation to the United States and a number of other major powers in the world, showing that China is currently an emerging economic power,  with  the  world’s  second-largest  GDP  value  and  the  world’s  largest  commodity  trade turnover; being the world’s largest commodity producer; with an attraction of foreign investment ranked third and offshore investment ranked second in the world; foreign currency reserve ranked first and overseas economic aid ranked second in the world. At the same time, China’s economic development is revealing weaknesses and risks, both domestically and internationally, when it is expanding its overseas economic cooperation.

Keywords: China, economic power, global, Belt and Road. 

Subject classification: International economy


1. Introduction

After 40 years of reforms and opening up, China  has   succeeded   in   developing  its economy, increasing its synergy, becoming a leading emerging power in the world, and said to challenge the US‟s position as the world„s  No.  1  with  regard  to  economic power. This has created a drastic strategic competition between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific region and globally. Thus, what  is  the  extent  of  China’s  economic power?    What   are   its   weaknesses   or limitations?   Within   the   scope   of   this article3, we analyse China’s true economic power and highlight its  limitations in the current period.

2. The true strength of China’s economic power

In the past 40 years, together with the determination to reform economic institutions, to liberate social production, to actively and proactively integrate into the international community, and to take advantage of opportunities brought about by economic globalisation, China has maintained a high economic growth rate continuously for many years. On average, between 1979 and 2016, China’s GDP growth rate was 9.6 % but began to decline in the five consecutive years from 2011 to 2016 [14, p.6]. China’s total GDP, in turn, surpassed that of the UK, France, Germany, and  Japan,  and  since  2010  to  date  has maintained the second position in the world (after that of the US). In 2017, China’s total GDP  accounted  for  14.84  %  of  the  total global economy, ranked second after that of the  US  (24.32%),  far  exceeding  that  of Japan which was ranked third with 5.91% [16]. China is now a major trading nation in the world. According to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), in 2016, the United States won the world’s first position in trade in goods after four years of China’s staying on the position, but in 2017, Beijing took the position of the world’s leading country in  value  of  goods  trade.  The  next  three positions  were  the  US  with  USD  3.960 trillion, Germany, with USD 2.610 trillion, and Japan, with USD 1.370 trillion [13]. In 2013,  China  became  the  largest  trading partner of 130 countries in the world [14].

China‟s  foreign  currency  reserves  still maintain the leading position in the world, by the end of 2017 reaching USD 3.139,9 trillion [17], and GDP per capita reaching USD 8,583 in 2017 [14]. The number of people escaping from poverty has steadily increased over the past five years to over 60 million people. It is worth noting that according to the indications of the United Nations Report on “The Situation and Outlook for the World Economy in 2018”, one-third of the global economic growth in 2017 came from China [18]. China is the country with the world’s third largest FDI value attraction in 2016 of USD 134 billion (after the US and the UK) and the world’s second largest outward FDI flow of USD 183 billion in 2016 (after the US) [14, p.15].

According to Nguyen Binh Giang’s research (2018), China is the world’s largest producer and has many brands which are not only famous in China and well-known at the regional level but also some brands that are even well-known at the global level4 [1]. China also adopted a “Made in China 2025” plan with the determination to control 90% of the world’s most advanced industries, including  robotics, biotechnology and artificial intelligence [15]. China has an increasing number of businesses earning the largest revenues in the world. In 2017, in the Fortune  Global  500  list  of  the  500  largest revenue companies in the world, there were 109   Chinese   companies, of which  three companies, namely, the State Grid Corporation  of  China  (SGCC),  the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (Sinopec Limited) belonged to the group of four largest companies. Compared to only 16 companies  in 2004, the growth rate of Chinese companies in the Fortune Global 500 list is very fast, indeed [1]. At the same time, China is also an important country in the new international labour division, which decides prices on many world markets [1].

In parallel with active participation in global multilateral mechanisms, China is also actively promoting cooperation with countries based on international economic and trade rules such as investment facilitation measures, Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiation and signing, and bilateral and multilateral investment agreements.  In 2017,  China  had  22  bilateral free trade agreements  with countries  and territories, including the ten ASEAN countries, Australia, Chile, Costa Rica, Hong Kong, Macau, Iceland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Peru, Switzerland, and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) [14, p.26].

China has also participated in negotiating a number of multilateral FTAs such as China- GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), China- Japan-Korea  FTA;  upgraded the China- ASEAN Free Trade Agreement version [23], and promoted negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP). At the same time, it is researching and negotiating 11 FTAs with countries and regions in the world [23].

China has proposed setting up a number of regional FTA mechanisms such as the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) proposed at the APEC conference in November 2014 in the country. FTAAP is China’s choice to shape a large regional trade  regime,  open  to  all  countries  and multilateral, but controlled and maintained by Beijing that plays a leading role.

Along with the economic power accumulated over the years, China has provided economic aid to many countries and regions around the world. A  report published by AidData (the   US)  on  11 October 2017 shows that China is on the way  to  close  to  the  US,  becoming  a  big foreign aid country in the world. Looking at the aid figures of the two largest economies in the period of 2000-2014, that future does not seem far away, when China will catch up with and exceed the US. China spent nearly USD 354.4 billion on aid and other forms of financial assistance to 140 countries, while the US spent USD 394.6 billion [4].

On  18  April  2018,  Beijing  officially established  an  international  development coordination  agency  [19],  demonstrating China’s determination to promote overseas aid and promote Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative”.  A  document  published  on  13 March  2018  added  that  the  new  agency will be responsible for formulating foreign aid  policies,  allocating  financial  aid  and monitoring  its  implementation.  Speaking to the National People‟s Congress on the same day, State Councillor Wang Yong, said that this was how China strengthened its influence abroad and served the “Belt and Road Initiative”. The “Belt and Road Initiative” is the one of Chinese President Xi   Jinping„s,   with   the   ambition   of building  a  “new  silk  road”,  connecting China  with  Asia,  Africa,  Europe,  and other regions [12].

In addition, in recent years, along with the  constantly  increasing  strength  of  the Chinese  economy,  the  scale  of  China’s RMB  internationalisation  has  also   been constantly expanded. Although the level of internationalisation  of  the  RMB  has  not been comparable to the USD, according to the statistics of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), as of the end of June 2016, it had become the 6th  payment currency, the  3rd commercial capital contribution currency and the  5th foreign exchange transaction currency   worldwide.   More   than   1,900 financial institutions of the world are using RMB as a currency for payment [20]. The European Central Bank (ECB) in June 2017 decided to convert the reserve amount of 500 million euros (equivalent to  USD 611 million) into the RMB [5].

3. Limitations of economic power

Currently, China is also facing unprecedented challenges since the start of open-door reforms up to now. The economic growth rate fell below 7%, slower than the average before the financial crisis in 2008. China considered it a new normal state. On the other hand, the main  driving  force  of  China’s  economic growth is a slow investment in fixed assets and domestic consumption, while solving the problem of excess production gives rise to many challenges. Inefficient state-owned enterprises and high  public debt are major obstacles to the Chinese economy. According to Bloomberg, China’s debts are currently at USD 30 trillion, about 259% of the country’s GDP, mainly incurred by state-owned companies [6].

Although China’s  economic  power  is great, the level of economic dependence as a diplomatic tool to expand its strength also reveals China’s limited ability to shape the order  and  an  environment  of  security  in Asia-Pacific and worldwide, such as: 

China’s contribution to the outside is limited, even the structures  established by China to connect infrastructure such as the AIIB cannot meet the financial needs of the regional   connection development. Global infrastructure needs huge amounts of investment capital, particularly in Asia and the  Pacific.  According  to  a  report  by  the Asian  Development   Bank, by 2030, the demand for investment capital for infrastructure development in the developing region will exceed USD 22.6 trillion, equivalent to USD 1.5 trillion per year [2] compared to USD 40 billion of the Silk Road Fund and USD 100 billion of the AIIB [11], which makes it difficult to implement China’s global initiatives.

In  recent  times,  the  United  States  and many other countries around the world have suspected  the  “peaceful  development”  of China. Especially, the US has actively taxed Chinese goods exported to the US market, signed   trade   agreements   with   partners proposing terms and considered to “isolate” trade   relations   between   countries   with China  [3].  At  the  same  time,  the  US declared China a US competitor [15]. This will  also  affect  China’s  expansion  of  its global economic power.

In recent years, China has aggressively implemented the “Belt and Road Initiative” as part of its “Global Strategy,” to connect the economy to the outside, addressing the difficulties    in the transformation  of economic development mode in China, but this initiative is also facing  many difficulties from the outside. Some countries have felt that it was not beneficial to   cooperate  with   China  in   connecting infrastructure construction. For example, in 2017, the three countries of Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar confirmed their cancellation of   three   large   hydropower   projects   of Chinese enterprises, worth nearly USD 20 billion within the framework of the “Belt and   Road   Initiative”   of   China   [21]. Recently,  the  Moscow-Kazan  high-speed railway project worth USD 20 billion, of which Russia is to spend USD 6.5 billion and China USD 13.5 billion, as a symbolic building in Russia in the framework of the “Belt  and  Road  Initiative”,  expected  to start  in  the  4th  quarter  of  2018,   was postponed  because,  according  to  Russian media,  the  project  is  corrupt  and  not suitable for Russia, while Russian people think that this project is a capital loss for their country [22].

In particular, China’s economic aid has become a concern for aid-receiving countries. Looking closely at those projects that China has poured money into overseas, researchers  can  not  help  questioning  the generosity  of  the  world’s  second-largest economy. Bradley Parks, Managing Director of AidData, stressed that there is a big difference in the US and Chinese aid structures. The United States spends 93% of its   total   aid   on   official   development assistance  (ODA)  -  interest-free  loans  or loans  with  low-interest  rates  -  targeting developing  countries  and  having  at  least 25%  of  the  aid  non-refundable.  AidData affirmed  that  this  form  of  aid  promotes better economic growth and increases the welfare of borrowing countries [4].

For China, ODA accounts for only 23% of  the  above-mentioned  amount  of  USD 354.4 billion while the rest is provided by China with market interest rates or interest rates close to the market ones. According to Mr. B. Parks, the collected data reflects the majority   of   Chinese   aid   focused   on commercial projects and provision of loans at market prices with the ultimate goal of making  money.   This   makes   China   the largest creditor in the world. B. Parks said that  loans  tend  to  go  to  Chinese  trading partners, countries that are rich in natural resources places worth investing in and can repay,   and   listed   some   of   the   notable destinations of Chinese financial aid such as Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Venezuela. He also stressed that it is making money and expanding  its  presence  to  many  foreign markets  to  help  Chinese  exporters  access those markets as well as to ensure they can import those natural resources which China does not have; so, that is clearly only for China’s self-interest [4].

In addition, it is worth mentioning that, with strong real economic power, China uses loans to make countries economically dependent on it so that those countries have to give  in  to  China  on  security  issues  and politics. For example, Laos and Cambodia in recent years have borrowed record amounts of money from China. In the case of Laos, Beijing  invested  USD  6.7  billion  in  760 projects of this country, which is greater than half of its GDP. In the case of Cambodia, the country’s  Ministry  of  Finance  on  20  July 2016  said  China  recently  lent  USD  259 million to the country to build a new boulevard in the capital city of Phnom Penh [9]. This affects the views and positions of these  ASEAN  countries  on  the  issue  of sovereignty in the Biển Đông (i.e. East Sea or the South China Sea), partly causing ASEAN’s internal divide in its efforts to cope with China’s ambition in the sea [10]. In the case of Sri Lanka, the “debt trap” has been transformed into China’s exchange of interests. In October 2007, Beijing pledged an amount of USD 361 million to finance the construction of the port of Hambantota and the government of Sri Lanka began to build the  port.  Next,  Beijing  lent  Sri  Lanka  an additional  amount  of  USD  1.9  billion  to upgrade its infrastructure and build an airport. After ten years, in 2017, when signing a port building agreement, Sri Lanka owed USD 8 billion  to  Chinese-controlled companies while the port had not gained any profits and became a “debt trap”. On 9 December 2017, the property and management rights of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port were handed over to a company in China for a 99-year lease term, in which the Chinese shareholding rate was up to 85% [10].

This has led to the caution and vigilance of  some  countries  when  borrowing  from China, which will  affect the expansion of China’s   economic   power   to   the   world, affecting the deployment of the “Belt and the Road  Initiative”.  For  example,  Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on his visit  to  China  in  August  2018  announced that  he  would  cancel  two  large  projects worth USD 22.3 billion invested by China in Malaysia, namely, the high-speed rail project connecting Malaysia with Singapore, worth USD 20 billion, and the project of two gas pipelines worth more than USD 2 billion [8], because   accumulated   debts   could   make Malaysia bankrupt while this country has not really needed those projects [7].

4. Conclusion

After  40  years  of  the  open-door  reform, China’s economic power has been positioned  as  one  of  the  world’s  leading economies  and  constantly  expanded  into regions  and  the  world,  challenging  the position and the role of US economic power on a global scale. This is partly the cause of the  current  US-China  trade  “tension”  or “war”. Thus, will China soon become the number one global economic power? The answer also depends much on the internal situation of China, the degree of success in transforming the mode of internal economic development  and  responding  to  external fluctuations,  especially  how  to  overcome suspicion and restraint of the United States and   other countries around the   world towards the expansion of China’s economic power. This can be said to be the biggest challenge   and   obstacle   for   China   in expanding its global economic power in the current period. At the same time, through what has happened and will be happening as a result of the US-China trade “tension” or  “war”, the world better understands China‟s current economic power.



* Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.

** Institute of Chinese Studies, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.

1,2 The paper was published in Vietnamese  in: Nghiên cứu Trung Quốc, số 11, 2018. Translated by Luong Quang Luyen, edited by Etienne Mahler.

3 The paper is the result of a ministerial-level research project entitled "Global Strategy of China in the New Context" hosted by the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.

4 For example, in the ICT-electronics industry, such as BOE, Changhong, Haier, Hisense, Huawei, Konka, Lenovo, Panda Electronics, Oppo, Skyworth, SVA,  TCL,  Xiaomi,  and  ZTE.  In  the  field  of network equipment design and manufacture, Huawei (China) is even challenging Cisco's (the US) number one  position  in  the  world.  In  addition  to  ICT- electronics, large Chinese multinational companies are operating in the internet, retail, finance, energy, and real estate industries,  making major investments in innovation, creating of brands with global reach, such as BYD (automobile), CCCC (construction and real  estate),  CNOOC  (offshore  oil  exploration), China Mobile (telecommunications), Geely (automobile), Shanghai Electric (electricity generation), Suntech Power (solar panels), Zoomlion (construction and sanitary equipment).



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