After almost a century of American dominance, many claim that China will soon become the world’s leading superpower. As historian Niall Ferguson puts it, we are currently in the throes of Cold War 2.0, between China and the United States.
Nevertheless, in spite of the attenuation of American imperial power and will, future Chinese supremacy is far from certain. China faces many problems: geopolitical, ideological, problems stemming from its authoritarian system of government and ethnic conflicts.
Historian Michael Mann has identified four sources of national power: ideological, economic, military and political. China certainly has economic power—although that can largely be attributed to the fact that more than 18 percent of the world’s population lives there. The US is the only country with a larger economic output, but Chinese per capita GDP is only around a quarter that of its rival. In addition, the combined effects of the one-child policy and economic modernization mean that the Chinese demographic advantage will soon evaporate.
As John Mearsheimer has argued, to be a superpower a nation must hold undisputed power over at least one region. China is not a regional hegemon. China’s only significant local ally is Pakistan. East Asia’s second largest economic player, Japan, is a bitter rival. South Korea will never ally with China while China continues to support North Korea. China’s southern neighbour is the second most populous country in the world. Relations between China and India have been strained since the Sino–Indian War of 1962 and China’s cordial relations with Pakistan also inhibit Sino–Indian cooperation. Many other countries in the region—Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Australia—are American allies. There is a history of strong anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia and Vietnam. Furthermore, China has many territorial disputes with its neighbours—including border disputes with India and disputes with Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam over the sovereignty of the Spratly Islands.
Some might regard Russia as a powerful Chinese ally, but the relationship between the two countries is primarily defensive: they are united against their common rival, the United States. That relationship may not last, given the more amicable relations between the US and Russia in recent years.
Do the Chinese have sufficient local military might to overcome these constraints? No. The fact that the Chinese only have overseas military bases in Cambodia, Djibouti and Tajikistan, while the US military is omnipresent in the Chinese neighbourhood, speaks for itself. Americans usually retain two of their 11 modern aircraft carriers in the Eastern Pacific. China has only two aircraft carriers in total, one of which is a Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier from the 1980s. South Korea is currently developing a modern aircraft carrier and Japan will soon have two.
In addition, China does not exert the ideological influence that the United States does. As Odd Arne Westad notes:
Today’s China is nationalist, not universalist. Its nationalism is up against other nationalisms in the region that are at least as powerful in domestic ideological terms as China’s own; think only about Korea and Vietnam … No young person of sound mind in Tokyo or Seoul, or even in Taibei or Singapore, is looking to the PRC for music to download, films to watch, or ideas to latch on to.
The Chinese regime has not even been able to export ideas to Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese, as their recent attempts to defend their political values have shown.
Some commentators have suggested that China has recently gained soft power because of its successful containment of the coronavirus. However, many have questioned China’s success in combating the virus and the narrative of Chinese success has met with little credence internationally. Chinese credibility was further undermined when the UK paid two Chinese companies $20 million for Covid tests that did not work.
China simply does not have a universalist narrative or imperial mission. It has no value it champions and claims to wish to impose globally—no overarching ideal that plays the role democracy and human rights do for the US and communism did for the Soviet Union. As historians have recognised since Thucydides, hegemonia (legitimated leadership) is different from arkhe (imposed control). No country has ever attained superpower status through brute force alone. Soft power is also necessary.
China also lacks soft power within its own nation. The country is a one-party state and therefore has no legitimate social contract. Ethnic minorities in China have to be pacified by force—an inherently unstable situation. Modern China is acting like a Han Chinese nationalist state, as their treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang vividly demonstrates. Chinese rule in Tibet is also imposed with an iron fist.
The treatment of the Uyghurs could alienate potential allies in Central Asia, such as other Turkic people like the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmens and Uzbeks. And, although many Muslim countries have been turning a blind eye to China’s oppression of its Muslim population, public opinion in Muslim countries may prevent those countries from cooperating with China.
In addition, as Minxin Pei has shown, Xi has monopolized power and decreased the influence of the politburo. The CCP will face a succession crisis after Xi’s demise or fall from power.
China’s power, then, is subject to many constraints. The country lacks powerful allies, is not a local hegemon and has almost no soft power, since the communist regime holds little appeal for most other nations. The regime is inherently fragile because of its concentration of power in a single strongman, its undemocratic system and the discontent of its ethnic minorities. The government is using brute force to hold the country together—but for how long?
The basic points here have been made elsewhere, of course, and are not obviously wrong: China does lack soft power; it doesn’t have the military capability of the US; it does antagonise neighbours. If China becomes a dominant power, it will not be one the same way the US is or was, either 1945-89, or now in the 2010s and 2020s (with the period of US dominance from 1990 to about 2008 unlikely to be replicated for a very long time indeed). However, I would not say the relationship between Russia and China “may not last, given the more amicable relations between the US and Russia in recent years” – Russia-US relations are not amicable and are unlikely to be so for the next decade, until there is a major change in leadership priorities. And while I can only speak for Taipei (Taibei) and not Seoul, Tokyo or Singapore, young… Read more »
I have to agree with what this guy is saying once again. China is an authoritarian regime, if you haven’t noticed our capital was attacked and people still get to protest for the attack on our capital!! That would never happen in China they would be silenced there would be no voice and lots of deaths… as a matter fact we have a belligerent buffoon still running around stoking anti-democratic lies about a stolen election and he still gets to walk the streets.. so let me reiterate our capital was attacked and the people still get to protest against the ones who are wanting to punish the people who attacked our capital.. that’s freedom baby. Now back to China. I think many people would agree that we don’t have any issues with the Chinese people it’s their ideology within their government! Has anybody seen Jack Ma?? Anybody?? How about the… Read more »
True in broad terms. However I think the level and extent of Chinese ‘soft power’ incursions into western institutions that have been decades in the making is unremarked on in this piece. Plus “…more amicable relations between the US and Russia in recent years.” could not be further from the truth given current western and especially NATO anxieties over Ukraine. Also the Russian inspired Magnitsky Act of US in 2012 illustrates how far back anti Russian oligarchic control goes.
The US has a $390B trade surplus with China. They have long ago taken us over.
“The country is a one-party state and therefore has no legitimate social contract.”
OK now I know the author is joking. Since when did China ever have any government but this kind? In all its 5000 years? Never.
The CPC is legitimate because it has delivered the goods to the people. It has taken them from poverty to a middle class lifestyle. Chinese cities today are as modern as anywhere in US or Europe. Nobody but a few malcontents are questioning the legitimacy of the CPC. Because it has done its part of the deal – something other governments could take a lesson from.
There are some unsupported claims and undeveloped arguments here. The biggest is that the CCP lacks internal legitimacy. Yes, it is repressive towards non-Han groups in the country’s arid western regions. Yes, this is immoral. But that doesn’t mean that the regime lacks legitimacy *among the Han majority*. Chinese history, as the Han are so eager to tell Westerners, is 5,000 years long. In that time, a recurring theme has been the instability of dynasties and the chaos that results when they fall. This is close enough to a universal experience in human history across societies that even an American like myself can understand it. It is entirely reasonable to conclude that for the Han majority, the internal stability brought by post-Mao CCP rule is valuable enough that the regime is legitimate on that basis. Add to this that over that time the CCP has delivered the most rapid socio-economic… Read more »
All these anti China articles have one thing in common. They attack china’s “authoritarian” rule while supporting the continuation of US iron hand dominance of the world. How hypocritical.
Don’t embarrass yourself by writing article like this when China never claimed to have a desire to dominate the world. China only stressed that the days of unipolar domination by one country is over and the multipolar world has arrived.