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Superpower China?

By Anton Harder for China Brain.


Discussion of the rise of China, India and Asia usually ends in the possibility of a new superpower emerging to challenge or even displace US hegemony. The analysis surrounding such discussion often seems simplistic and the possibility of such a development is usually overstated. More importantly the discussion itself seems to misunderstand the real changes occurring in the international system. In this two part series we will consider China emerging as a recognizable superpower. Following this we will consider what China might in fact be emerging as instead.




Setting aside questions of what would qualify as proof of China’s new superpower status, a sobering bucket of cold water can be emptied onto assessments of China’s current national power by an in-exhaustive summary of the country’s many weaknesses.


The first weakness might be, surprisingly, one of willpower. To be a superpower, if we understand that to be what the USA and USSR were during the Cold War, and the USA was – or is – in the post-Cold War era, surely that state would need to possess the strong desire to promote itself and its political-economic model abroad in the way that the USA, USSR and indeed the PRC were all committed to doing for much of the Cold War. China still prioritizes its domestic agenda. Indeed the Chinese Communist Party’s number one concern is intrinsically domestic, which is to preserve its own power. This is a defensive position that does not seem to fit the notion of a superpower’s desire to impose its system of beliefs on others.


Another sign of weakness is the elite’s apparent lack of faith in China. Bo Xilai, the erstwhile Mayor of Chongqing now incarcerated and under official investigation, was an example of this. A preference for overseas assets and a children educated in the  various institutions of elite Western education do not suggest confidence in either the present or the future of China. That this arrangement is a basic goal of all middle class Chinese, and would-be-elites, further underscores the lack of faith in China, and again suggests something other than the supreme self-confidence of a genuine superpower.


A general distrust of the outside world and a powerful victim mentality that gives China a tendency to blame others for its problems would also seem to mitigate any sense of China being an emergent superpower. This is rooted in a sense of history which as officially promoted reveals a once glorious, benign and tolerant empire having suffered gross humiliation at the hands of ruthless expansionary foreign powers by virtue of their acquisition of advanced technology. This view of history leaves China with a blind-spot for how others perceive it, as also at times aggressive, expansionary and bullying. This sense of indignation lends China a particularly strident, self-righteous tone in pursuing its claims. In the South China Sea, for example, this makes it increasingly difficult to talk rationally with those who dispute China’s claims, and perhaps worse, creates huge domestic political pressure to take a hard line, lest China be once again seen as weak or shamed by foreign powers.


The trouble China has in attracting serious allies must also be considered a factor undermining its international power. In the early and mid-twentieth century as British power faded it actively sought to smooth the US assumption of its former hegemonic role, in general confident that this would mean the continuation of a system beneficial to it. Europe on the whole has also sought very much to cooperate with US power. China simply does not have the same appeal to other significant powers in the international arena, and is more likely to aggravate than inspire admiration. The US has of course cooperated on China’s rise so far but that is on the condition that China does not challenge its direct interests. It is still the US that educates the global elite in its universities giving it an unparalleled cultural power and one that China is far from competing with. China simply does not offer an attractive alternative world view for global elites to embrace.


Another major weakness could be categorised as broadly economic. This may seem surprising considering China’s current dynamism compared with most of the rest of the world. This broad category, however, must include long term economic crises brewing in China such as the massive environmental damage already endured yet not accounted for, and environmental damage still to come from the development model that is currently deployed and likely to persist for some time to come. Another major economic problem facing China will be its changing demographics as it becomes an aging country with a massive dependant and unproductive elderly population in the 2020s. The vast labour pool that has supported China’s growth will be hugely diminished, and even less likely to pursue the higher consumption lifestyle that the economists and government all know is necessary to rebalance the economy. The reality of the current difficulties of this rebalancing, the massive financial inefficiencies supporting the economic system as it stands and huge industrial and manufacturing overcapacity is a further weakness, outlined on this site by Paul Harding.


This very discussion is premised on the idea that it is the normal state of affairs to have a superpower or two defining major international issues. However, although history inclines us to look for patterns, it does not evolve in predictable cycles. Many of the issues indicated above that would seem to disfavour a conclusion for China emerging as a new superpower, at the same time appear somewhat tied to a very twentieth century view of international relations. It is still possible that a new paradigm will emerge. China is very unlikely to emerge as a US or Soviet style superpower, but at the same time it is contributing to a massive transformation of global power dynamics. US power across all spheres, and European economic and trade power, are all in relative decline vis a vis the various large and rapidly growing economies of the developing world. An under-appreciated difference between our century and the last will also be the power of non-state actors, corporations and the like. US decline prompts anxiety, leading to discussion of new potential superpowers, and China will certainly be a massive part of any new structure, but it is only one aspect of a far more complex and multi-polar picture. What follows is rarely what came before and China is a symbol of this changing world. However, it will not be setting global agendas and making unilateral overseas military commitments à la Moscow and Washington during the Cold War.


The next piece in this series will consider what China is becoming, if it is not superpower status as we understand that term. It will be argued that China is far more defensive and insecure than it is commonly portrayed. The major concern of China is not to install global hegemony but rather to assert independence from the domination the West has exerted over the international system for the last two hundred years.





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