The 1979 book Japan as Number One: Lessons for America, by East Asia scholar Ezra Vogel, stoked fears that the United States was about to be outcompeted by the land of the rising sun. And why not? The U.S. had just suffered through a decade of stagflation and was about to enter what was then the worst recession since the Great Depression. By the late 1980s, the case seemed ironclad. “I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but I get the uneasy feeling that America is history,” wrote Robert Kuttner, then the economics correspondent for The New Republic, in the Los Angeles Times in May 1988. Evidence for this decline and fall? “The total value of stocks listed on the Tokyo stock exchange is now $3.54 trillion dollars, compared to $2.34 trillion for the New York Stock Exchange.” 

In his 1988 book Trading Places: How We Are Giving Our Future to Japan and How to Reclaim It, former Reagan administration trade negotiator Clyde Prestowitz warned, “The power behind the Japanese juggernaut is much greater than most Americans suspect, and the juggernaut cannot stop of its own volition, for Japan has created a kind of automatic wealth machine, perhaps the first since King Midas.” 

Two decades later, we know that the panic over Japanese economic competition was greatly exaggerated. Today the total value of the New York Stock Exchange is nearly three times that of Tokyo’s. Japan is not Number One. In fact, as of last year it became Number Three, behind China.

Twenty-five years ago, Japanophobes (or should they be called Japanophiles?) were fretting about the differential economic growth rates of the United States and Japan. At times in the 1980s, Japan’s gross domestic product (GDP) was growing at nearly 10 percent per year, whereas American GDP was increasing at a merely respectable 4 percent. (All figures are unadjusted for inflation.) Had the growth rates continued at those levels after 1988, Japan’s overall economy would have caught up to ours within 10 years.

Instead, the Japanese financial bubble burst. In 2011 the country’s GDP in current dollars is $5.5 trillion, compared to the American total of nearly $15 trillion. Per capita GDP (adjusted for purchasing power, a measure of what it costs to purchase similar baskets of goods and services among countries) for Japan is $34,000, compared to $46,000 for Americans. Japan has suffered through two decades of stagflation, and you no longer hear anyone recommending that the U.S. adopt Japanese-style top-down industrial policy as an economic panacea.

So now comes China. “We are getting our clock cleaned by Chinese state capitalism,” wrote Robert Kuttner, now editor of The American Prospect, earlier this year at The Huffington Post. Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Simon Johnson piled on at the annual conference of the American Economic Association, declaring, “The age of American predominance is over. The [Chinese] Yuan will be the world’s reserve currency within two decades.” The conservative Citizens Against Government Waste even aired a television commercial featuring a Beijing economics class in 2030 in which a professor explains how America became indebted to China. The professor concludes, “So now they work for us.” The class chuckles knowingly. 

This gloomy message of American decline relative to China appears to be seeping into popular consciousness. An April 2011 poll by Xavier University found that “a stunning 63 percent believe that the Chinese economy is more powerful than the US economy.”

 “The U.S. could lose its status as the world’s biggest economic power within five years,” reported The Daily Mail in April. The Mail article was based on calculations released by the International Monetary Fund projecting that total Chinese GDP, adjusted for purchasing power, will surpass U.S. GDP by 2016. 

Can that be? Let’s do the math: China’s total GDP is around $6 trillion today. Assuming 10 percent GDP growth for the next 20 years, China’s GDP would rise to $40 trillion. If the U.S. economy grew at, say, 3 percent a year, total GDP would be $27 trillion. Back in 2007, before the financial crisis, the investment bank Goldman Sachs issued a report projecting that Chinese GDP would be $26 trillion in 2030, compared to $23 trillion for the U.S. It bears noting that current Chinese purchasing power per capita is about $6,000, compared to $46,000 for Americans.

But it is unlikely that China’s economy can sustain 10 percent annual growth for two more decades. Economic history suggests that once countries catch up with leading economies in terms of technologies and business management, growth slows down. Consider what would happen if Chinese growth slows to 5 percent. Assuming sustained respective 5 percent and 3 percent growth rates for China and the U.S. for the next two decades, China’s total GDP would reach just $16 trillion, not $34 trillion. In 30 years, it would grow to $26 trillion, by which time U.S. GDP would be $36 trillion. In 40 years, China’s GDP would be $42 trillion, compared to our $49 trillion. All in all, it would take China a half-century to catch up.

Just to be clear: Anyone who thinks that they know what purchasing power parity might be between any two countries by 2060 is seriously deluded. Calculations like these—mine and Goldman Sachs’—can only provide rough possible scenarios for the economic future.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that U.S. growth will remain steady at 3 percent. As the recent history of Japan shows, it is possible to adopt economic policies that produce decades’ worth of economic stagnation. In that case, China’s GDP may well surpass ours sooner rather than later, although perhaps not for the reasons alarmists predict.

Then again, China has already picked most of the low-hanging fruit, economically speaking. Future productivity increases will not come from merely copying technologies developed in other advanced countries. Furthermore, continued rapid growth depends on the kind of innovative management that can thrive only in open societies. Unless China makes the transition to an open society, its future is not growth but stagnation and political disillusionment. And if it does make that transition, then China will be a partner, not a rival. 

Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is the author of Liberation Biology (Prometheus).