To what extent has China become a Superpower?

In recent years there has been an intense discussion about the international role of China and whether or not it can be classified as a superpower. A superpower is a state that possesses economic and military strength, which places it as superior to other states in terms of influence. China’s impressive economic growth and increased influence as an actor globally has led many to view it as a rival to the US and even for some to believe it could overtake them as the world hegemon. John Mearsheimer even argued that the US and China are likely to engage in War if China continues its remarkable economic progression. However, the US still remains superior on a number of important factors, such as military. Therefore, this essay will conclude that China’s status is that of a great power, but with the direction they are taking this role could shift to a superpower in the near future.

The rise of China’s economy, at a rate never before seen in their history, is evidence of it being a Superpower. China is currently competing with the US economically. In 2014, China’s total GDP overtook the US’s when measured by purchasing power parity, accounting for 16.32% of the world’s GDP eclipsing the US’s 16.14%. The Pew Research Attitudes Project found that in 23 of 39 nations the verdict is that China either already has or soon will replace the US as the world’s superpower, demonstrating the growth in China’s standing in the world and the possible power shift, which some believe has already occurred, due to it’s huge economic development in the past two decades. Furthermore, China’s wealthy economy is also reflected in the investments in China’s infrastructure. In 2011, China did not have a single wind turbine, but currently there is one going up every two hours, showing their rapid state of development. Realist, John Mearsheimer argues that there is likely going to be a power shift to China due to its “impressive economic growth” and that this will likely lead to conflict as the US fights to remain the unipole due to a phenomenon known as the Thucydides Trap. Realists would claim that the rise of China to the world’s superpower is likely as states are selfish and in order to maintain security China must increase its influence in the world.

However, China also faces huge problems, which weakens their advancing position in the world. China’s one child policy, which was adopted in 1979, has meant that today China has an ageing workforce, which is very bad for productivity. By 2050, it’s predicted that China’s workforce will have shrunk by 17%, which is a problem for a growing power like China who are rapidly industrialising. Also, China has one of the largest carbon footprints of any nation. Less than 1% of China’s 500 cities meets WHO air quality standards, leading to the premature death of approximately 4,000 Chinese people each day. A green politics theorist would argue that this sort of ecological ignorance is extremely dangerous and should stop, despite a nation’s rising prosperity. They would argue that this sort of action is irresponsible and hence China doesn’t deserve the title of a superpower. These environmental issues put China’s population greatly at risk and don’t let it thrive as America’s population has. Whilst China has made impressive economic advances, it needs a stronger workforce to catch up with the US’s young, able workforce with an employment rate of 65.4%. Ian Bremmer argues that while China’s growing strength suggests it as a superpower, its “domestic vulnerabilities” will have great repercussions as well.

China also has a growing global influence, due to its huge investments over the last two decades. Chinese investment in Africa jumped from $7 billion in 2008 to $26 billion in 2013, helping the continent build up their infrastructure and also adding to China’s sphere of influence. This is consistent with the Marxist dependency theory in which it is clear that traditional imperialism used by nations to obtain more power and influence, has been replaced by neo-colonialism. Notably, in Latin America China has pledged to invest $250billion, giving Beijing a strong foothold in the West. On top of this, Beijing has just launched the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, in which 57 countries have already signed up to, including US allies against the will of the United States. This is an obvious rivalry to the Washington-based IMF and World Bank and is one of the many indicators of China’s growing equality with the US. China has also invested heavily in railways. In January 2017, a Chinese freight train arrived in Barking for the first time, demonstrating China’s policy of extending their influence and trade opportunities beyond Asia in the hope to eclipse the US. A significant example of China spreading their influence is the One Belt, One Road initiative proposed in 2015, a economic and strategic agenda to link China’s economy to Europe’s through Eurasia and the Indian Ocean. This has the effect of providing economic aid and new infrastructure opportunities to countries in need but also allows for Chinese domination of these countries.

China’s global influence, however, only stretches so far. While China is spreading its influence and building allies, it cannot yet compete with America’s support. The US plays a leading role in NATO given that it contributes 22% of NATO’s funding and was the primary actor in setting it up in 1949. The US also is currently the biggest shareholder in the World Bank, giving it considerable leverage over state economies. Hence, it is clear that while America’s influence is both economic and political, China retains a mainly economic influence, giving it less of a superpower status than the US. The safeguards set up by the US in the Cold War to solidify their global influence make it very hard for China to overtake it in the future, such as the developed allies, world aid banks and international organisations all with the benefit of securing American dominance. Furthermore, China has been criticised for its misuse of ‘soft power’. Coined by Joseph Nye in the 19070s, soft power refers to a state’s ability to persuade other states without force or coercion. China currently prioritises hard power over soft power and hence cannot compete with the US, which currently ranks third globally in its use of soft power. While China’s economic strategies have prevailed, it makes little attempts to “win hearts and minds” of other nations and hence can’t compete with the entertainment giant of the US. The extreme measures of censorship in China, such as the prohibiting of Facebook or Youtube, create a hostile opinion of China. A liberal would argue that this lack of freedom and democracy is very negative and will create an oppressive state. This demonstrates how the liberal Western nations view China and hence why it doesn’t hold popular support. Furthermore, the previously stated environmental dangers of Chinese industry and the intense corruption create a negative image of China for other nations. As such Pew Research centre found that 44% of global attitudes saw corrupted officials as a major problem, which demonstrates the unfavourable attitudes towards China.

China’s military expansion has also led many to view it as a superpower. Chinese President Xi Jinping has tasked the new People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force with pursuing the “leapfrog development” policy and advancing military innovation. Chinese economic progression recently has meant that they have hugely increased military spending. In 2017, the BBC reported that China had increased its military spending by 7%. China has also recently been building islands in the portion of the South China Sea, which they claim to own in accordance to the ‘nine dash line’, on which they have majorly completed several military bases. These bases have naval, air, radar and missile capabilities and greatly increase the influence China has due to their positioning being in a route for half of the world’s commercial shipping. Furthermore, China has recently demonstrated increased involvement in global summits and organisations. A prime example of this is China’s recent involvement in the United Nations Peacekeeping initiative, where it is now the second largest donator of peacekeeping troops and as of July 2016 is the second largest financial supplier as well. Additionally, China’s seat on the UN Security Council gives them further authority over global affairs. Due to this China is more likely to become a superpower, as according to the World Systems Theory China’s wealth and position in the UNSC make it naturally more inclined to becoming a superpower than Periphery countries, like Cambodia. China’s active position in these organisations demonstrate them trying to assert themselves as a global superpower, by taking a more active interest in world affairs and becoming more influential through its impressive economic position.

However, China still does not have the military capabilities of the US. In 2014, SIPRI found the US spent $610 billion on military expenditures, three times as much as China. America’s strength is in its military and defensive sectors and as such China cannot yet compete regardless of their rising position as a great military power. Additionally, while the military bases in the South China Sea are advantageous to China in terms of its military build up, it was seen as a soft power disaster. In building the facilities, China created huge resentment from both Vietnam and the Philippines who both claim to have a right to the sea. This damages the relations China has with the nations inside Asia, jeopardizing China’s dominance in this area. On that note, while it might have a strong majority support in Asia, China lacks the global support that America had after World War II to be accepted as the next world hegemon. There was a dominant discourse after WW2 because of the elation of winning the War and the grateful population towards the US in the media, which poststructuralists will argue gave the US a rare opportunity to easily become the world hegemon. Today, China doesn’t seem to have that easy access to the role of being a superpower because there isn’t a power vacuum currently. As well as this, although their economies are closely competing, at the Bretton Woods meeting in 1944, world leaders vowed to anchor their exchange rates in gold, which would then be tied to US dollars. Thus we can see that the Chinese currency doesn’t hold the importance that the US dollar does and this reflects their status as well.

While China has attained the title of a great power, it doesn’t yet challenge US hegemony enough in all aspects to compete with the US in a bipolar world or replace it as the unipole. China’s domestic problems, such as its environmental dangers, make it less supported than that of America when it was rising to power post-WW2. Plus, while China’s building up its military progressively, it still cannot compete with the US, which means its likelihood of becoming the next unipole in the near future is very slim. However, a great problem China faces is that in the USA’s Cold War against Russia, it set in place a military and economic order, that prevents other nations from rising. While China has began to set up their own safeguards, such as the Asia Infrastructure Bank, they are yet to break out of US hegemony in her backyard, the Asia Pacific. However, China’s impressive economic progress enables it to challenge US dominance.

Georgina Trott


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