In a Post-9/11 World, China Moving Forward

BY Michael D. Mosettig  September 7, 2011 at 3:28 PM EDT

It may feel unseemly to ask if any nation benefited from 9/11, but it is becoming increasingly clear that China has emerged far stronger since the attacks on the United States a decade ago.

In the months right after 9/11, I posed the question to various China hands and analysts: Didn’t China benefit in the aftermath? Before 9/11, China was in the sights of many conservatives and defense hawks in and out of the Bush administration as the most worrisome potential adversary of the United States. The crash of a U.S. spy plane over Hainan Island in spring 2001 drew the two countries into a near crisis for 10 days.

But after 9/11, terrorism and the Middle East replaced China on the neo-con radar. China signed up for the “war on terror,” which seemed to give Beijing free rein to go after ethnic minorities such as the Muslim Uyghurs under the guise of fighting terrorism.

But that was small stuff compared with the long-term shifts in global power in the decade since 2001, a point vividly brought home in a recent piece by Financial Times editor Lionel Barber, entitled “The end of US hegemony: Legacy of 9/11” (registration required).

The United States has spent twice as much ($2 trillion) in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan than it did in Vietnam, conflicts that were similar in seeing a technological giant become a Gulliver at the hands of guerrilla fighters. Vietnam expenditures helped bring a subsequent decade of inflation and stagnation. This time around, a budget surplus has morphed into a $14 trillion national debt, and deficit politics seemed to have paralyzed U.S. economic policymaking in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression.

China, meanwhile, keeps on chugging. Its GDP growth rate may be slowing a bit now, but is still way beyond the stagnant United States and Europe.

One example Lionel Barber cited: China now has surpassed the United States as the world’s largest auto market, as hundreds of millions of Chinese reach middle class status. China, rather than the United States, is the key trade partner for many nations including such traditional U.S. allies as Japan and South Korea.

It is now trying to match its economic clout with a military buildup, including a new aircraft carrier and missiles that could potentially sink U.S. Navy ships off Taiwan, and sometimes clumsily applied political muscle, such as its fractious disputes with neighbors over islands in the South China Sea.

At the beginning of the 21st century, a decade after the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet empire, the United States stood alone as the world’s military and economic superpower, or “hyperpower” as a French foreign minister termed it in a moment of hyperbolic excitement. In terms of sheer numbers, it still retains that status. But now American supremacy is being challenged, if not yet matched, by a collection of rising powers — foremost, India, Brazil and ultimately China.

As to who came out ahead from 9/11, the question sadly seems to answer itself.

Follow Michael Mosettig on Twitter. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.