Can you imagine anyone asking this question in Foreign Affairs these days? That’s exactly what Gerald Segal, director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, did in the September–October 1999 issue. (Summary is available free; full text on Lexis-Nexis.) So, does China matter?
No, it is not a silly question—merely one that is not asked often enough. Odd as it may seem, the country that is home to a fifth of humankind is consistently overrated as an economy, a world power, and a source of ideas. Economically, China is a relatively unimportant small market; militarily, it is less a global rival like the Soviet Union than a regional menace like Iraq; and politically, its influence is puny. The Middle Kingdom is a middle power. China matters far less than it and most of the West think, and it is high time the West began treating it as such.
Segal, committed to arguing against what he apparently saw as an over-hyped fear of China (and possibly inspired by the “Japan Inc.” hype of the 1980s that ended with Japan’s recession), goes through a litany of stark statistics that suggest China was no economic dynamo, despite the hypothetical potential of its massive consumer market. He concludes, “China is at best a minor (as opposed to inconsequential) part of the global economy. It has merely managed to project and sustain an image of far greater importance.”
Militarily, Segal draws a detailed picture of China’s various capabilities, which have certainly grown since then but not in a truly radical way. (China has had its nuclear capability since 1964.) Segal argued at the time that China was a “strategic foe” and that it was “ludicrous to claim, as Western and especially American officials constantly do, that China matters because the West needs it as a strategic partner.” He sees a 1999 China as a non-status quo country, and therefore no partner of the United States.
Finally, Segal simply poo-poos China’s ideological-political power on the global stage. This was of course before the burgeoning discourse on China’s soft power. And of course, China’s environmental impact was not even part of his discussion. Only now is such a thing in vogue enough to get some cred.