One of the reasons that political observers have been a bit wary of former vice president Joe Biden’s strong position in Democratic 2020 primary polling is his history of making awkward comments. While he was serving as Barack Obama’s No. 2, this wasn’t really much of a problem. When he ran for president in 2008, though, it was.

During a campaign stop in Iowa on Wednesday, Biden offered a comment that was hardly disqualifying — but would certainly count as head-scratching.

He was addressing growing concern about China’s emergence as a counterweight to the United States.

“China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man,” he said. “They can’t even figure out how to deal with the fact that they have this great division between the China Sea and the mountains in the West. They can’t figure out how they’re going to deal with the corruption that exists within the system.”

“They are not bad folks, folks,” he said, adding, “They are not competition for us.”

Well, let’s talk about that.

China is, as you learned in elementary school, the most populous country in the world. What’s more, its population has been growing at a more rapid clip than that of the United States for decades. China has added the entire current population of the United States since 1985, at which point, its population was already three times what ours is now. (All of the data in this article is from the World Bank.)


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

As a percent of the entire world’s population, though, China’s population is declining, thanks to massive population growth in other countries such as India.

That, by itself, doesn’t mean much. After all, in 1985, it wasn’t the case that China was a serious global competitor to the United States economically or militarily. But things have changed.

In the past 20 years, China’s gross domestic product has spiked, growing much more rapidly than that of the United States. (We’ve included Russia on these charts to compare China with the other much-talked-about global power competing with the United States.) There are questions about the legitimacy of that data, but it’s clear that China’s economic power has increased substantially. Bloomberg News projects that China’s GDP will be larger than that of the United States by 2028.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Consider one metric: the traffic at the country’s ports. Twenty years ago, Chinese ports saw about 144 percent of American port traffic. Now? More than 415 percent. Chinese port traffic makes up an increasing percentage of all traffic in the world.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

Another interesting metric -- though one that likely correlates to population -- is the number of scientific and technical journal articles originating in each country, a measure of scientific innovation and investment. In 2017, according to the World Bank, China produced more such articles than did the United States.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

China still lags on Internet adoption — but that may also be an opportunity for economic growth.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

That’s the economy. On the military side, the picture is similar.

The Chinese military is far larger than that of the United States, a function of its larger population.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

The United States continues to spend far more on its military as a percentage of the country’s GDP than does China, though that ratio has fallen in recent decades.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

But that also masks how much China is spending. An estimate of actual spending (applying the percentages above to the World Bank GDP data) shows the rapid increase in spending that China is undertaking.


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

These are tangible metrics. There are other measures, too, including intangible ones such as China’s efforts to bolster its geopolitical relationships. It’s undertaken a massive infrastructure project called the Belt and Road Initiative. China is positioning itself as a global leader, regardless of Biden’s views.

The problem with Biden’s comment isn’t only that it seems out-of-touch with the emerging reality. It is also that it brings to mind Biden’s (and Obama’s) 2012 dismissal of then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was the United States’ “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” In this case, though, the evidence against dismissing China is more immediately obvious.

As Romney himself seems to have noticed.