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.
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?