Is China a superpower?

Published : 01 May 2013

By: Brad Nelson

Most public accounts either paint China as a superpower or a country well on its way to becoming one in the near future. The problem is there has been little public debate about this characterization of China. China's rise to the top is treated more as an assumption than a possibility that needs thorough analysis. But is it true?

Is China a peer competitor to the United States? In terms of economic and military capabilities, as well as international respect and prestige, has it significantly narrowed the gap on American preponderance? Does China look and act like a great power?

We can say this: China is the second-most powerful country in the world, a rising power and a potential contender for great power status. China has the second-largest economy and second-largest defense budget in the world, and it has embarked on a large-scale program to modernize and expand its military and power projection capabilities, especially its naval ones.

China has become more assertive in international relations, putting its stamp ­­­­­- for better or worse - on a host of issues including clean energy, the global economy, violence in Syria, the transition of power in North Korea, reconstruction in Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation, and territorial and waterway claims in the South China Sea.

Equally important, China is now treated as an emerging great power by the international community. Since the 2008 financial crisis, which wrecked America’s economy, Beijing has been feted by international and regional leaders and organizations as an indispensable and responsible player in the global economy. China’s profile in important international bodies such as the G20 has markedly risen.

On a similar note, concerned about the rise of China, the US has recently reoriented its foreign policy by implementing a "pivot" toward Asia. Washington has begun to devote more time, personnel and resources - political, economic and military - to Asia to guard against the chance that Beijing might attempt to force the US out of the region. Such a shift in American foreign policy is clear evidence of the respect that America has for China’s emerging might.

While China has experienced growth and expansion, the US at the same time has suffered through a prolonged period of malaise and dysfunction. Because of incredibly costly and reckless policies by Washington, the last 10 years have not been good to America: two expensive, bloody and losing wars, a severely overstretched military, economic stagnation, high unemployment, political gridlock, and low public confidence and trust in key political institutions.

Given the two trends - the rise of China and America’s struggles - it does seem like the gap in power has narrowed. All of this said, China's continued rise in the long-term is by no means guaranteed. Despite breathless, practically cheerful proclamations that the 21st century will be dominated by China, we should not assume this to be true.

America could once again show its political and economic resilience and vitality by rebounding from a tough decade. And China has a host of domestic obstacles to overcome, a number of which could doom its full-fledged ascension.

First, China must deal with various economic challenges. For instance, its economy could overheat. China’s economy is heavily export-driven and depends on its two largest markets, the US and Europe, to be healthy. However, both are struggling and expected to struggle for the next several years.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. While China has a large and growing economy, it is hardly an advanced and transparent one. According to data from 2011, its per capita income sits at a little more than $5,400 – in the same ballpark as the Dominican Republic and Algeria. 

Economists have long suspected that unemployment rates in China are far higher than what Chinese bureaucrats routinely report to the world. Like America and Europe, China also has an emerging debt problem. With a large number of future senior citizens, China very likely has a forthcoming workforce problem.

And most of the world's most polluted cities are, not surprisingly, in China. Attempts to remedy this, according to experts, could cause a 2 to 3-percent annual drag on the Chinese economy. Next, consider China's chaotic politics. Current events nicely highlight some of China’s political failings.

The forthcoming leadership transition, due to take place later this year, seems to have somewhat fractured Beijing's elites. The Bo Xilai fiasco has revealed the extent of deep corruption embedded within the Chinese political system. The treatment and eventual defection of Chen Guangcheng, a leading civil rights activist, clearly highlighted the tyrannical ruthlessness of local and national leaders.

As Chen and his friends and family clearly know, Beijing and its political allies in China’s regions, cities and villages do not brook any public challenges to its political orthodoxy. So far, this approach has successfully maintained the status quo, though it has not prevented protests, some of which are violent, from frequently occurring. But in the long-run, it is likely unsustainable, particularly if China’s economy continues at its blistering pace.

In short, as more people move into China’s burgeoning middle class, there will naturally be stepped-up demands for more rights such as freedom of speech, and freedom to organize and participate in politics. How will Beijing react under greater stress?

It must tread very carefully. If Chinese leaders do not figure out when to take the brakes off their politics, the situation could turn ugly. It would not be surprising to witness an unraveling of social and political unity and cohesion, more pressure from below for more political autonomy and a delegitimized Chinese state. In a worst-case scenario, conflict between the state and political groups increases the prospect of civil war and the emergence of secessionist movements.

Lastly, let’s not forget the difficulties with China’s foreign and security policies. Beijing lacks the ability to mobilize and project military power into distant lands/oceans, something with which the US surely has no problem.

China’s defense spending, while on the rise, is still no match for the American military behemoth. According to 2011 figures from the Stockholm International Peace Institute, the US spends more than double what China does on its military.

China does not dominate its region in ways that great powers typically have in the past, and the way America currently does. This is primarily because China is located in a region, very broadly defined, that contains several other powerful countries including India, Russia, Japan and even Indonesia, South Korea, Australia and Vietnam.

China really cannot push around and bully these countries. And if it could, there are grave risks in doing so. For instance, a rising China automatically triggers wariness and concern within the region.

But an overly assertive China will trigger counterbalancing behavior. In fact, largely because of China’s behavior in the South China Sea, this is already happening.

A number of Asian countries have independently taken the initiative to buttress their security in the wake of China’s rise. Analysts say we are now observing the nascent stages of an intraregional arms race.

A number of Asian countries have sharply increased their defense budgets and ramped up efforts to modernize their forces. In particular, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Japan and South Korea are actively looking to improve their air and naval capabilities.

Additionally, Asian countries have used bilateral and multilateral mechanisms for security purposes. Southeast Asian countries, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, have privately called for ASEAN to present a unified diplomatic front to challenge Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

America's so-called pivot to Asia has generated support from Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines. These countries want tighter political and security ties and enhanced military-to-military cooperation, and that is exactly what Washington is willing to give each of them. And when push comes to shove, I would expect other countries in the region, particularly India and even Russia, to cultivate stronger ties with America as a way to counterbalance China.

In the end, does knowing that China is a rising power tell us anything? Primarily, it tells us there will be increased rivalry and tension between China and the US and its allies in Asia. This is inevitable, even if Beijing's intentions turn out to be mostly friendly and benign.

A more powerful China, one that spreads its wings on the world stage, will ineluctably encroach on what America sees as its turf as well as frighten its much weaker neighbors. Moreover, because the intentions of Chinese leaders are by definition private and not completely known to outsiders, the US and its allies will be wary of China's motives, at least as long as China remains a rising power.

While the world saw the US and former Soviet Union square off in the Cold War, this does not provide insight into a hypothetical period of Chinese and American supremacy. Sino-American relations could veer toward conflict, yet this is not the only possible outcome.

America and China could simply become rivals and competitors, each learning over time to peacefully coexist with the other. Or as another example, though it seems remarkably far-fetched, the US and China could develop warm and friendly ties. Thankfully, the growing power of a networked, interdependent world makes positive outcomes more likely than ever before.


Brad Nelson is president and co-founder of the US-based Center for World Conflict and Peace.

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