Is China going to be the world’s next superpower?

The way that this question is framed, in my opinion, fits neatly into the typical American conceptualization of what global influence and hegemony entails, and accordingly reflects the American fear of the “fall of the West.” The term “superpower” is generally reserved for the United States in its period of post-Cold War, unipolar hegemony; as such, for China to become the world’s “next superpower,” it will need to displace the United States as the unrivaled global hegemon. While China is undoubtedly the most rapidly rising power in the world today, and indeed may soon come to pose a distinct challenge to American hegemony in the Asia-Pacific, it is far from becoming the world’s next “superpower” as defined by the American construction of the term. Far from the “fall of the West” that American policymakers so fear, China’s rise is rather indicative of the phenomena of the “rise of the rest,” in which the United States’ waning global hegemony is gradually replaced by a multi-polar environment of competing regional powers. At the forefront of these powers will, of course, be China, which has, in a number of metrics, surpassed the rate of rise of other emerging states. Yet, at the same time, a number of factors constrain, contain, and curtail the Chinese rise to unrivaled hegemony and “superpower.” The metrics which indicate China’s rapid rise, along with those factors which contain it, will be explored in this essay

Seen through a number of measurements and lenses, the People’s Republic of China is quickly emerging as one of the world’s top powers. Buoyed by remarkable rates of growth, the Chinese economy has recently surpassed the United States’ to become the most powerful in the world. Millions of Chinese are moving into urban areas, an indicator of development, and the quality of life for the average Chinese citizen continues to improve markedly. Increased levels of Chinese investment and economic development in foreign countries are posing China to become one of, if not the, key players in the 21st century economy. As indicated by an increasingly aggressive foreign policy and prestigious demonstrations on the global stage, such as the near-flawless 2008 Beijing Olympics, China is beginning to assert itself more readily and more forcefully in the international arena. Increasing military budgets and a major military modernization campaign is transforming the Chinese military into a first-rate, formidable 21st century force. China’s longstanding nuclear arsenal and UN Security Council seat already places it into the club of top powers, while China’s increasingly sophisticated space program, which is only the 3rd to place humans into Earth orbit, places it alongside history’s most recent “superpowers,” the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. Additionally, China’s involvement and leadership in international and intergovernmental organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, demonstrates that China wishes to legitimize itself as a capable, responsible international leader. Outside of these tangible measurements of “power” and “hegemony,” the Chinese themselves are seeing China as an emerging top power. Again, China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and China’s rhetorical foreign policy position of non-interference and peaceful cooperation, which seeks to redefine the norms for and codes of conduct of the international community, are indicators of the Chinese not only seeking to play a crucial and defining role in the 21st international community, but believing that they can.

Yet while these metrics might point to a meteoric rise to global eminence for China, a number of internal factors present distinct challenges to China’s future stability, and thereby curtail China’s ability to sustain its ascent. Though China’s economy has experienced unprecedented rates of growth over the last decade, this growth cannot continue indefinitely, and is already beginning to show signs of waning. Not only does this present a political issue to the Chinese Communist Party, which has premised much of its legitimacy upon producing economic results, but could also forestall the internal and external development which powers China’s rise. There was, to draw a parallel, much talk of Japan becoming the world’s next “superpower” during its period of intense economic growth, talk which promptly ended once Japan’s economy began to stabilize. China today also faces issues of political instability and uncertainty, as demonstrated by the growth of rural protest and opposition movements and the recent Hong Kong protests. While these movements are today largely contained and undermined by China’s continued economic prosperity, they represent a distinct future challenge to the Communist Party should things go unchanged. Dealing with political reforms, or facing the consequences emergent from a lack of reforms, will present the Communist Party with a challenge the significance of which it has perhaps not faced before, and the manner by which the Chinese government handles future political issues could significantly hamper China’s position and prestige on the global stage.

Externally, as well, China faces a number of containing factors in its rise to “superpower” status. For one, the world’s current “superpower,” the United States, is far from waning in hegemony to such a degree that it will be “replaced” by China; through decades of eminence and leadership in international political, economic, and military organizations, the United States has entrenched itself as a global power and hegemon for at least decades to come. Even if the United States continues its “decline,” the predictions of which I myself take issue with, it will still be among the world’s top powers, and will still exert considerable enough influence in the Asia-Pacific to challenge China in its own region. Indeed, not only does China face challenges and unfavorable balances of power globally, it must contend with states balancing against it in its own “backyard.” Outside of the American alliance system, which incorporates Australia, South Korea, and Japan and which seeks to balance against and contain Chinese regional assertiveness, a number of states in the Asia-Pacific are “hedging” against China, in that they are seeking to develop a diversity of security and economic arrangements that limit the overall influence China has on their strategic and foreign policy calculations. As such, in order to rise to global hegemony, China will not only have to develop a favorable balance of power, but will first come to dominate a region in which it is already being balanced against. Coming up against the American Asia-Pacific alliance system and other states’ “hedging” behaviors, China is likely still decades away, if not longer, from dominating its own region, let alone the international environment.

Thus, though China’s rise is undeniable, and while that rise continues strong for the time being, there are a number of future and contemporary factors which are bound to limit the ultimate extent to which China becomes a global hegemon. Rather than becoming the next “superpower,” China is most likely to become the most significant state actor in the Asia-Pacific, and, to an extent, will likely represent the most significant balance of power challenge to the United States and other emerging regional powers in the coming multi-polar environment. It is difficult in our current context to envision China’s role and position in an international environment outside of the present unipolar one; such is why, I am sure, the question is framed in such a way as to suggest that China could supplant the United States as the world’s next “superpower.” Yet, as political scientists and policymakers, I think it is important for us to see China’s rise not as an indicator of declining American hegemony, but as a manifestation of a fundamentally changing international environment. Only through that lens can foreign policy be made that would preserve America’s global influence through engagement with rising powers, while limiting the consequences of competition, conflict, and war which dramatic changes to the global balance of power often bring.