A Superpower? No Time Soon

Saturday, April 30, 2005

People have been predicting China’s emergence as a superpower since the days of Napoleon, who purportedly appreciated China’s potential as a world power and cautioned against waking the sleeping dragon. China’s subordination into the Western international system in the 1839–42 Opium War, and its decline as the “sick man” of East Asia for the rest of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, dulled but never extinguished the expectation that, sooner or later, China would again dominate the world.

Several recent events have provoked the latest announcements of China’s looming ascent to superpower stature and suggest that these long-held expectations are, at long last, coming true. In December 2003 China launched its first human into space, joining the United States and the former Soviet Union as the only countries to have done so. American media have recently taken notice of China’s efforts to expand and diversify its access to sources of oil in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and—unsettlingly close to home—Canada. The world’s industrial economies, including the United States, have inferred from the giant sucking sound created by lost manufacturing jobs and from the flood of Chinese exports into their markets that China is becoming the world’s manufacturing hub. Meanwhile, analysts ponder the implications for global security of China’s military modernization effort, now two decades old.

The term superpower is often used loosely in popular discourse, so let us define it as a country that has the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, sometimes in more than one region of the globe at a time, and so may plausibly attain the status of global hegemon. By this measure, in modern times we have as benchmarks only the historical examples of Britain and the Soviet Union and the yardstick of continuing American power today. The basic components of superpower stature may be measured along four axes: economic, military, political, and cultural (or “soft”). Let us examine China’s stature along each of these four measures.

Economic Power

The expanding range of China’s economic interactions has provoked the most recent attention to China as an emerging superpower. American media have taken note of recent Chinese diplomacy in search of long-term sources of oil, and the growth of China’s oil imports has had an impact on gasoline prices that American consumers notice at the pump. China’s enormous trade surplus with the United States is now the largest of any American trading partner, including Japan. China’s leading place in heavy industries such as steel and shipbuilding reflects the dramatic advances that China’s economy has made in the past two decades. And China’s low labor costs are making it the manufacturing hub of the world, contributing to the hollowing out of the traditional American manufacturing base.

These important trends signal China’s arrival as a major player in the international economy and underscore China’s rise over the past 25 years as a competitor for world markets and resources. But they do not lead inexorably to the conclusion that China is an emerging economic superpower.

For one thing, the size of China’s GDP makes it a member in the cast of industrialized economies, but it is still a long way from economic superpower stature. In 2003, China’s GDP (by exchange-rate measures) totaled $1.159 trillion and ranked sixth in the world, behind France, Britain, Germany, Japan, and the United States ($10,065 trillion). For another thing, China has indeed become an important trading nation, but it still ranks well behind other major economies. In 2003, China ranked ninth, supplying 3.5 percent of the world’s exports. By comparison, the United States in 2003 accounted for 14.7 percent of the world’s export volume, and the European Union accounted for 16.8 percent. Although Chinese acquisition of foreign assets has attracted attention recently, its overall foreign investment is negligible in comparison with other major economies. China is nowhere close to becoming a world financial center.

China’s economic successes are impressive and deserve attention. They reflect China’s late entry into the international economy—China was effectively shut out of interactions in the international economy until 1971—and the revision of its development policies begun by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Over the two decades after 1978, China’s economic growth rates approached 10 percent annually.

But China’s further rise depends on the continuation of such growth rates, and one wonders how long the spectacular rates of the past 25 years can continue. The high proportion of China’s economy occupied by its exports makes it sensitive to the ups and downs of the international economy generally and to the engine of American consumption in particular. China lacks a genuine central bank and national banking system, and the accelerating growth of its energy demands places uncertainties on long-term economic growth. Meanwhile, China’s population is graying, as the bulge of people born during Mao’s heyday ages and places heavy burdens on the smaller generations of Chinese born in the 1980s and after. In some measure, China’s current wave of industrialization replicates the industrial cycle pioneered by the United States, followed by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, as they shifted away from heavy industry toward lighter, more efficient, and environmentally less intrusive industries and services. And China faces competition from other rising centers, including India.

Military Muscle

Since 1985, China has pursued a concerted program of military modernization that has attracted attention and, since the mid-1990s, generated controversy. Since 1989, defense allocations in China’s public state budget have risen at double-digit rates. China is developing a new generation of strategic and tactical missiles, some of which are deployed on the Chinese coast facing Taiwan. China is building a much more capable navy and has bought advanced aircraft from Russia.

But these modernization efforts are best understood as an effort targeted at the needs of specific conflict scenarios in China’s immediate periphery. They do not appear to reflect an effort to acquire the strategic and power-projection capacities of a superpower. Specifically, China’s military modernization programs appear focused on several priorities:

  • Acquiring “green water” naval and air support capacities to defend China’s coastal provinces, now the geographic backbone of China’s industrial economy

  • Establishing credible military capacities to win conflicts quickly and decisively on China’s long land borders in Asia, where China still has several unresolved boundary disputes

  • Defending China in what is arguably the most heavily militarized region in the world, which includes five of the world’s seven declared nuclear states (as well as South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, all of which could rapidly develop nuclear weapons, and North Korea, which may already have them)

  • Compelling resolution of the Taiwan question either politically or by outright military force—even in the event of American intervention on Taipei’s behalf—as well as Chinese claims in the South China Sea (the Spratly Islands) on terms acceptable to Beijing

  • Preserving the credibility of China’s second-strike nuclear deterrent against a strategic first strike

Most of China’s military modernization programs appear to be addressed to these priorities. To meet its aims with respect to Taiwan, for example, Beijing is seeking to develop enhanced submarine capacities to blockade the island; buying advanced Su-27 fighters from Russia to establish control of the skies over the Taiwan Strait; and exploring asymmetric information warfare capacities to paralyze Taipei’s capacities to resist. Beijing has bought Russian Sovremenniy destroyers primarily because they carry the SSN-22 Sunburn—a supersonic, low-altitude anti-ship missile designed to attack aircraft carriers, the instrument of choice should the United States choose to intervene in a Strait conflict.

What Beijing does not appear to be doing is acquiring the elements of global power projection characteristic of a superpower. China’s navy during the last two decades has increasingly shown its flag in foreign ports around the world, but there is as yet no decision to build aircraft carriers, the premier contemporary mode of naval power projection (the U.S. Navy has 12). Neither is there a clear effort to build a strategic force on the scale of American forces or those of the former Soviet Union. China has no long-range bomber force. China has demonstrated a capacity since the early 1980s to deploy a ballistic missile submarine and fire a missile from it, but China’s single such submarine reportedly has serious seaworthiness problems and has not left port since 1988. Likewise, China’s small land-based missile force is aging and increasingly vulnerable to a first strike, especially with the advent (however notional at this point) of American missile defense. Beijing has given no evidence that it is aiming to establish the kind of massive strategic force of thousands of deliverable warheads possessed for decades by the United States and, still, by Russia.

China’s military modernization has made significant strides, but it remains handicapped by China’s weak defense industrial base, a reality underscored by Beijing’s readiness to buy weapons from foreign suppliers. After two decades of concerted efforts, China’s military modernization has so far created what the U.S. secretary of defense’s annual report to Congress calls “pockets of excellence” within a larger picture of obsolescence.

From this perspective, Chinese military developments deserve vigilance, in the broader context of ongoing military modernization efforts throughout Asia, but not alarm. For China to change the balance of military power in Asia decisively, a number of things must happen. First, China’s dramatic economic growth must continue indefinitely, a prospect about which there are grounds for skepticism. Second, China’s neighbors must stand still in their own defense modernization efforts, which so far has not been true. Third, Russia must continue to be willing to sell advanced weapons systems and military technology to China; sooner or later, however, one might expect Moscow to reconsider how much further it can aid the advance of China’s military capacities without jeopardizing Russia’s own security interests. Finally, the United States would need to draw down from its security commitments in the region, a development that does not appear likely.

Political and Soft Power

Undeniably, China’s political influence has grown during the past three decades. In part, this rise in political influence simply reflects the reversal in its position in the international order. For the first two decades of its existence, the People’s Republic of China was an outsider, shut out of the international political and economic community by the effective American containment policies of embargo and ostracism. On entry into the United Nations in 1971, Beijing at last acquired legitimate standing in the international community and could begin to use the instruments of conventional diplomacy and access to the international economy to pursue its national interests abroad. China’s international prestige and political influence grew as Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1980s transformed China’s economy and its relationship to the world. But it suffered dramatically as a consequence of the brutal suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, of the revolutions in Eastern Europe in the same year, and of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, making China appear a reactionary political fossil in the perceived tide of democratization elsewhere. Since then, it has worked to translate its continued economic success into political influence and to overcome international perceptions of it as an atrocious abuser of human rights.

China’s seat as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council is perhaps its asset of greatest leverage in international politics. But since taking its seat in 1971, China has used it to mediate and balance, not to disrupt or displace American leadership and initiatives in international affairs. During the 1990–91 Persian Gulf crisis, for example, Beijing voted in favor of all U.N. resolutions sanctioning Iraq and calling for its withdrawal from Kuwait except the two authorizing the use of military force. Although voicing its reservations about those two resolutions, however, Beijing did not veto them but merely abstained. Similarly, in the diplomatic maneuvering preceding the 2003 Iraq war, Beijing played up French, German, and Russian opposition to resolutions explicitly authorizing an American-led use of force against Baghdad and attempted to broker that opposition with the Americans and British. But it was also clear that Beijing was unlikely to go it alone in vetoing such a resolution had Paris, Berlin, and Moscow folded.

More broadly, Beijing has preached the gospel of “multipolarity” in international politics and sought to promote strategic partnerships with other centers of power to balance American hegemony. But these efforts have been largely unsuccessful, frequently because Beijing’s potential partners, like China itself, depend on cooperative relationships with the United States, much as they may chafe at American dominance in the international system. A case in point was the joint declaration signed by then Chinese president Jiang Zemin and Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2001 insisting on the sanctity of the 1968 ABM treaty. When the Bush regime disavowed the treaty in 2002, neither Moscow nor Beijing responded with much more than mild criticism, underscoring the limits of their strategic collaboration against the United States.

In other respects, Beijing’s political influence and soft power abroad are comparably limited. No other country seeks to emulate China’s political model. Instead, Beijing is accommodating itself, with each passing leadership generation, to the discourse of democracy associated with the West and the United States and striving to sustain the power of the Chinese Communist Party—itself vastly transformed. China rightly complains that Washington and other Western capitals do not appreciate the progress China has made on human rights issues during the past two decades, Tiananmen notwithstanding. And, with some justification, it points out that American concern about human rights in China was virtually absent during Mao’s heyday, when human rights abuse was at its height in China, and in the 1970s and 1980s, when China served important American strategic interests in collaborating against the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, China has had some political success in collaborating with other Asian countries that bristle at what they regard as overweening American preachiness and hypocrisy. But Beijing has yet to dissolve the cloud of skepticism and opprobrium that shadows it on human rights in international politics.

China’s culture has long fascinated the West, and China today has become a major tourist attraction. Tokens of this fascination abound in the United States. I am reminded of this when I see my son, now a Seattle resident and long a consumer of “alternative” counterculture, who has a tattoo of the Chinese word heping (“peace”). More and more American students are studying Chinese rather than French as their second language and are taking time out for study in China itself, a decision that undoubtedly reflects growing perceptions of China as a land of opportunity. But the numbers of American students studying Chinese—as laudable as they are—are far short of the numbers of Chinese students who study English or who come to the United States and other Western countries. Nor is Chinese likely to displace English as the language of international politics anytime soon.


By all these measures, China is not now a superpower, nor is it likely to emerge as one soon. It is establishing itself as a great power, on a par with Great Britain, Russia, Japan, and, perhaps, India. China is today a serious player in the regional politics of Asia but just one of several. In global affairs, its stature and power are growing, but in most respects it remains a regional power, complementing the cast of other great powers under the overarching dominance, however momentary, of the United States.

China’s rise over the past two decades has been spectacular from any perspective and deserves attention and respect, especially in view of the difficult course of China’s attempt to adapt to the modern world since the nineteenth century. From the perspective of realist geopolitics, however, it does not merit the alarm and trepidation that the announcement of a rival superpower might conjure. Napoleon, in that regard, may be right, but not yet and not soon.