Is China a Superpower?

To determine if China qualifies as a superpower, it is necessary to examine its strengths across various realms
1st June 202311 min

By Global Arena

With the US and China potentially heading towards a new stage of conflict, it becomes important to assess China’s power and capability in countering the US in the Asia Pacific region. To determine if China qualifies as a superpower, it is necessary to examine its strengths across various realms. The term “superpower” is frequently used in mainstream discourse, yet many people may not fully grasp the true meaning of the word.

The term “superpower” is often loosely used to describe any powerful country. However, historically, the label of superpower has been primarily attributed to the United States and the former Soviet Union. It was first introduced by political scientists in the 1940s to describe the evolving global situation at that time. The reason why both the US and USSR were considered superpowers, and why the US continues to be recognized as one, is because these nations excelled in multiple dimensions and achieved parity with each other. They demonstrated exceptional capabilities in political influence, ideology, culture, military strength, economy, technology, science, and nuclear capabilities. These comprehensive achievements across various domains solidified their status as superpowers.

Despite the eventual destabilization and decline of the USSR, which led to its dissolution in 1991 and left it lagging behind the US from the 1970s onwards, it still achieved a level of power and influence that was unparalleled by any other power, except for the US. The USSR’s accomplishments in various realms, including politics, ideology, culture, military prowess, economy, technology, science, and nuclear capabilities, were remarkable and cemented its status as a formidable superpower during its existence.

The Criteria

In line with Bernard Cohen’s analysis, a nation’s assertion of power relies on four fundamental pillars: 1) possessing superior military strength and the readiness to employ it, 2) having surplus economic resources to extend aid and invest in other nations, 3) providing ideological leadership that serves as a model for other countries, and 4) maintaining a cohesive political system of governance. Consequently, a nation that excels in all four dimensions to the highest degree can be regarded as a superpower, thereby yielding significant geo-strategic influence.

However, other have further explained on the criteria of being a superpower. According to George Friedman, a superpower is a state that possesses the capacity to project power and influence globally, sometimes simultaneously in multiple regions, while also maintaining the necessary material capabilities. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US national security advisor under President Carter, adds that a superpower encompasses attributes such as ideological culture, political power supported by military strength, economic dynamism and influence, technological prowess, nuclear capabilities, and popular culture. Ian Bremmer, the founder of Eurasia Group, defines a superpower as a nation that utilizes its military, economic, and political power to shape the behaviour of nations across multiple regions worldwide.

These varied definitions align with the current reality of the United States, a nation widely recognized as a superpower.

The term “superpower” was originally coined by William T.R. Fox during the Cold War, referring to the United States and the Soviet Union as the first two superpowers due to their comprehensive nature of power and influence in every tangible and intangible dimension. Hans Morgenthau defined superpower as one that possesses the dominant military, economic, and political power necessary to establish itself as the master of a universal empire.

These definitions collectively highlight the multifaceted nature of a superpower, encompassing military strength, economic might, political influence, ideological culture, technological advancement, and the ability to shape global affairs.

When examining the influence of America, it becomes evident that the world order bears a distinctly American imprint. The global economy relies heavily on the American dollar, American music and popular culture hold a dominant position worldwide. American corporations have a global influence on corporate culture and practices, and the fast-food industry is ubiquitous across the globe. Furthermore, America leads in the financialization of markets and possesses the most advanced and widely procured military equipment. It also maintains the largest economy and significant political influence. Lastly, American ideals pertaining to various aspects of human life and society are widely popular in the world. While these ideas may have originated in the Western world rather than being exclusively American, it is undeniable that America has been a primary champion and disseminator of such ideals.

The global economy relies heavily on the American dollar, American music and popular culture hold a dominant position worldwide. American corporations have a global influence on corporate culture and practices, and the fast-food industry is ubiquitous across the globe

In summary, the shared factors among the various expert opinions include ideals, political power, economic and military strength, nuclear capabilities, and technological advancement. Based on this criteria, it can be concluded that China does not meet the qualifications in most of these realms, with the exception of technology.

Why China isn’t a Superpower

Firstly, when it comes to the military, China lacks a strong and experienced navy. While they may have a larger number of ships compared to the US in terms of quantity, their naval capabilities are relatively lightweight, and they lack a cohesive strategic central command. In contrast, the United States has a substantial advantage in terms of skilled personnel, with thousands of workers possessing decades of experience in maintaining and operating its ships across the globe. China, on the other hand, is still in the process of recruiting an adequate number of skilled workers capable of effectively maintaining and operating functioning battleships, especially as they venture further away from their shores. This could potentially pose a challenge for China if the United States decides to stretch the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and entice it away from its home shores.

Similarly, China’s airpower capabilities are significantly smaller than those of the United States, with a smaller air force and fewer fifth-generation stealth fighters, and lacks of experience. However, China is aiming to assert itself as a dominant power and has been expanding its regional presence. Additionally, China’s efforts to establish bases and introduce carrier-launched jets help compensate for its lack of aerial tankers. However, China’s limited tanker fleet and fewer helicopters compared to the United States hinders its ability to conduct major cross-continental air campaigns and maritime attack missions effectively, which would hinder China’s ability to counter America in midst of a war in Taiwan.

According to studies conducted by RAND, China’s air and naval capabilities tend to decline as it moves farther away from its shores compared to the United States. Even if China were able to invade Taiwan, conducting a successful occupation and amphibious landings on Taiwanese shores would be challenging due to the security protection provided by American air and sea power to Taiwan, and due to the stopping power of water. The real issue is that, China lacks the strong alliance network that the United States has built, leaving China relatively isolated in the midst of a war scenario.

In terms of the economy, an analysis of the dollar and the economic power of the United States reveals that China lacks the economic power to alter the existing system. This is because China relies on the US reserve currency to fund its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and other infrastructure projects. China’s dependence on the United States is evident, as it has struggled to transition from an export-oriented economy to a consumption-based economy. Also, China’s GDP per capita, averaging around $13,000 which is relatively low compared to the United States, which maintains an average of $40,000.

This economic disparity could significantly impact China in the event of US sanctions during a war scenario, as China heavily relies on imports of vital resources. In contrast, to Russia, who may be less affected by such sanctions in comparison to China in the future.

The import data for China includes several notable commodities:

Crude petroleum: valued at $150 billion
Iron ore: valued at $99 billion
Petroleum gas: valued at $36.6 billion
Gold: valued at $7.39 billion
Soybeans: valued at $37.4 billion
Refined Copper: valued at $31.7 billion

In addition to these commodities, China also imports other significant items such as integrated circuits ($144 billion), cars ($42 billion), vehicle parts ($23.9 billion), and planes, helicopters, and/or spacecraft ($7.45 billion). Majority of these resources and equipment are crucial for China to sustain its industrial functionality and technological progress. They serve as essential components for China’s economic development and advancement.

Since, China’s economy heavily relies on export-oriented trade, particularly through its eastern ports. Access to open trade is crucial for its economic prosperity. If these ports and sea lanes are blocked by another state, even partially, it could have catastrophic consequences for Beijing given that America maintains a global naval presence. While China may consider retaliatory measures, it is unlikely that such actions would completely paralyze the US naval presence in the Pacific region.

The portrayal of China as an authoritarian communist state is often exaggerated by Western narratives, potentially serving as a justification for the US’s hawkish stance towards China. China does not possess any ideals to propagate to the world unlike America who is on moral mission to spread its secular- liberal capitalist ideals.

China thrives on securing its commercial interests and in promoting mass Chinese nationalism. China makes no attempt to promote an alternative ‘better’ way of life to the rest of the world instead, Beijing simply feeds on Chinese xenophobia. As for the Chinese Communist Party, it no longer possesses the ideals of egalitarianism and selflessness. Currently, the unprecedented polarization within the United States could have presented an opportunity for China to capitalize on Western values and systems, presenting a new alternative to the world. However, China did not seize this opportunity, revealing its lack of distinct ideals and systems to promote.

Consequently, during its trade dispute with the United States, China called for the World Trade Organization (WTO) to closely monitor the trade misconduct and discriminatory policies by the US. This demonstrates China’s commitment to liberal order institutions, if China intended to overthrow the American order it would have promoted an alternative vision with new rules and practices, but such a vision does not seem to exist.

In terms of politics, China’s political influence is severely limited in comparison to America. Upon examining China’s policy in the Middle East, it can be argued that it lacks substance on issues such as Iraq, Iran, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. China does not have a view on these issues and neither gets involved in them instead, China’s participation is primarily driven by its pursuit of securing vital resources to meet the growing demand in its domestic market. During the Gulf Summit, China called for respect for sovereignty, respect for international law, criticized Iran for its nuclear program and destabilizing behavior. Thus, China called for the same things that America does. The reality suggests that China prioritizes projecting an image of peacefulness and in safeguarding its commercial interests over establishing political influence. Therefore, China is politically fragile and poses no danger to America in the region of the Middle East. If China indeed posed a political threat in the Middle East, it would have pursued actions contradicting those of the United States, such as forging alliances or orchestrating coups to shift nations from being pro-US to pro-Chinese. Such actions could potentially destabilize the existing American architecture in the region. Instead, China calls for the same thing that America does which, shows China’s political weakness and lack of will.

Similarly, when it comes to the Asian Pacific region, China has largely been unsuccessful in altering the political and security alliances dominated by the United States. Nations such as Japan and South Korea continue to be portrayed as significantly influenced by the United States. To make matters worse, Hong Kong, which is a part of China, exhibits a concerning trend where based on data, a significant portion of individuals below the age of 30 do not identify themselves as Chinese but rather perceive themselves as part of the Western world. This not only highlights China’s political weakness in changing the existing circumstances, but also signifies the absence of an alternative ideological system and culture within China which, could counter Western influences. More importantly, it undermines Chinese nationalism, which President Xi frequently invokes in his speeches to nation.

As for tech, while China has made significant technological advancements, it lags behind Taiwan and the West in the field of semiconductors. Taiwan currently manufactures 60% of the world’s semiconductors. Moreover, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands are also ahead of China in semiconductor technology. Compounded by American alliances, multiple restrictions have been imposed on China, potentially impeding its aspirations in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). This is primarily due to the crucial role semiconductors play in the development of AI, digital cities, modern computers, and military technology.

The United States has leveraged its dominant power and global reach to shape supply chains and trade practices in a way that favors its own interests and hinders China’s advancement. Essentially, this situation can be attributed to political power backed by military strength, rather than solely technological progress, which once gain signifies the importance of political power.

In summary, China can be characterized as a one-dimensional power rather than a superpower. It is evident that China has been unable to establish a system of its own where it can form alliances and shape the outcomes in its region according to its interests. Therefore, the argument of China being a superpower and displacing the United States begins to lose credibility. If China were truly a superpower, it would be expected to have a level of parity with the United States in terms of power. However, this is not the case. Moreover, China lacks a prominent role in shaping global policy and ideology. One can also contend that China falls short of meeting the criteria to be regarded as a great power since it lacks the ability to shape the behaviour of other nations on the global stage. This reality becomes evident when looking at China’s own region, where the United States holds significant influence over the behaviour of most nations than China does.

One comment

  • Muji Rahman

    4th June 2023 at 10:20 pm

    Is this the same situation when the Romans fought the Persians?


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