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Is China the World’s Next “Superpower?”

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.

Why Does India’s Success Matter to the United States?

Though events in the Middle East and Eastern Europe have recently preoccupied the United States’ foreign policy focus, it is in Asia where its interests are most significant and most at risk. As a region with a number of rapidly developing economies and growing multinational institutions, Asia is coming to have increasing significance in global affairs. Meanwhile, China’s economic rise, military modernization, and increasing regional assertiveness have been met by many in Washington with concern. Recognizing this, the Obama administration has tried to reaffirm and refocus American commitment to the region through its foreign policy “pivot.” Perhaps overlooked in this discussion over the United States’ future in Asia, a discussion often dominated by the U.S.-China dynamic, is the role that India has and will come to play. As the United States and India share a number of security concerns and are working toward a deeper strategic relationship, a successful India can significantly abet American regional foreign policy. Indeed, the U.S.-India relationship will be vital to maintaining a favorable regional balance of power for the United States. Such is why India’s success is so important to the United States, and why recent American administrations have sought to support India’s ascendency in the region.

Doubtlessly, the coming relationship between the United States and China will define the state of world affairs for much of the 21st century. Some see the emergence of structural bipolarity between the United States and China, locked in competition for regional hegemony, as a distinct possibility. Yet in this increasingly globalized and economically interdependent world, a “Cold War” style confrontation between these two states is decidedly outside of their interests. Conflict emergent from Chinese challenges to the balance of power could have disastrous economic consequences for the region and, in turn, the world. As such, in order to preserve the existing balance of power in the region and offset China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, the United States has sought a closer strategic relationship with India. Indian strength and success, it has been reasoned, will serve as an effective balance against a rising China, and represents one of the few options the United States has in preserving its Asian interests. Bolstering Indian strength, and ensuring that India continues to see success in its rise as an economic power and regional player, is thus very much in the United States’ strategic interest.

This is not, however, to say that Indian success is important to the United States only as a means to contain China. Framing the U.S.-Indian relationship as such is counterproductive. Rather, India’s continued success and rise on the global arena should be seen as a way to support the United States’ efforts in solving global problems. Lasting peace in Asia, nuclear proliferation and safety, global climate change, piracy, and crime are all issues which affect both the United States and India; a strong, successful India working in concert with the United States to resolve these issues would be within the long-term interests of both countries. Bolstering India’s clout and capacity to effectively deal with global problems would be a boon to America’s efforts to support a peaceful, stable international environment; India’s success in this area would be quite beneficial to the United States.

Outside of the context of the coming U.S.-China relationship, India’s success supports and will support the United States in a number of ways. India’s relationship with Afghanistan and Iran could greatly abet the United States’ foreign policy goals. India has influence on Iran as a major importer of Iranian oil and an important supplier of their agriculture goods. As a member of Iran’s general neighborhood and a recent member of the global nonproliferation regime, it is in India’s interest to demand Iranian compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions on its nuclear program. A more assertive, powerful India could support the United States’ commitment to a non-nuclear Iran by adding an influential voice in the calls for non-proliferation; doing so, after all, is within its interests. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, India provides significant investment in Afghani infrastructure, resource extraction, industries, and education and health. Indian reconstruction in Afghanistan has helped strengthen the legitimacy of the national government in Kabul and has won widespread support from Afghanis. India wishes to see an Afghanistan with durable governance which is capable of maintaining internal security; strife in Afghanistan could create an environment for terrorist groups to threaten India. The United States’ and India’s interests thus align in the case of Afghanistan, and India has the clout and local support necessary to play a significant role in supporting those interests. As such, India’s continued success and continued proactive policies of engagement in Afghanistan are of major help to the United States’ global counter-terrorism effort.

It is clear that India’s success is thus very important to the United States. Discussed here were the various geopolitical reasons for why Indian success matters to the U.S., but a multitude of other reasons exist as well. Indian economic success would give room for deeper trade relations with the U.S., more American investment, and, in turn, would support the growth and development of both countries’ economies. India’s success as a regional space power will likely come to support the United States’ space programs, will bring tangible benefits to millions of Indians, and will serve as an effective counter to China’s increasing ambitions for outer space. As the world’s largest democracy, success in the political realm through combating corruption and strengthening institutions can reaffirm the U.S.-supported democratic model of governance against China’s increasingly attractive single-party model. Bolstering India’s growth and seeing to its continued success should thus be a continuing policy for the United States. After all, as President Obama made note of, the relationship between India and the U.S. could become “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”

The Asia-Pacific’s Most Significant Security Threat

The Asia-Pacific today is a region facing a diverse array of security challenges and issues, yet none appear to pose a significant and immediate threat to continued regional stability. Undoubtedly, issues such as piracy, terrorism, and climate change are present in the region; indeed, piracy is quite rampant in the Strait of Malacca, a major global shipping route, and acts of terrorism can be seen in the 2002 Bali bombings and the 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway. Yet, despite these issues, they are not immediately pressing, and are being proactively dealt with: ultimately, regional piracy affects only a limited amount of global shipping, the region has taken active steps to countering terrorism through multilateral security arraignments and support from the United States, and the worst affects of climate change are decades away. Instead, the most important security threat facing the region today may not be an intrastate or transnational issue, but rather an interstate one. This may seem paradoxical – as a region “locked into” long-standing and stagnated international disputes, such as territorial disputes over the Senkaku islands and South China Sea, there seems to be no immediate chance for interstate conflict. Yet states in the region, especially China, have recently escalated their rhetoric involving such disputes, and have engaged in military “saber-rattling” over them. Such conditions present the opportunity for a serious security issue, that of unintended escalation into direct interstate conflict.

States “slipping” into conflict, or coming close to doing so, is not without historical precedent. One need only look at the Cuban Missile Crisis to see how military escalation and “saber rattling” over a source of diplomatic tension can bring two states to the brink of conflict, even when their leaderships have calculated that conflict is outside of their national interests. Scholars of security studies acknowledge that, though a state’s overall foreign policy goals, intentions, and actions are at the discretion of that state’s upper leadership, the “tangibles on the ground,” especially involving military action, are often under the command of the immediate military leadership. As such, military activity that brings two states into escalating levels conflict may occur if the military leadership in the immediate area of that conflict allows it do so. In the case of the Asia-Pacific, for example, a standoff between Japanese and Chinese warships in the South China Sea may escalate into conflict if the commanders of those ships unilaterally decide to conduct, or are forced to react to, a show of force. Alternatively, the circumstances of a situation may push the militaries of two states into a position of increasing hostility and tension. For example, a 2001 crash involving an American military surveillance aircraft and a Chinese warplane, which was tailing the American aircraft, quickly became a heated and tense issue between the two states, one which offered the potential for an escalation into military conflict.

Of course, as the example of the 2001 warplane crash demonstrates, the escalation of a conflict on a low level may not necessarily push two states into broader conflict and war. Yet, considering the circumstances of the region today, it seems increasingly possible that such might be the case. The states participating in territorial disputes, especially China and Japan over the South China Sea, have come to espouse strong rhetoric over those disputes. As these states’ governments increase their rhetoric, the increasingly premise their legitimacy upon a successful resolution to the issue which is within their favor. For the Chinese government, success in the South China Sea will demonstrate that the Communist Party has lifted China into a position of regional power, has made the country militarily strong, and has restored China as a rightful hegemon. For the Japanese government, success in the South China Sea demonstrates that it can successfully contain and curtail the threatening rise of China. As such, failure on the part of either state to accomplish its territorial goals will amount to the premise of what those goals are built around being delegitimized. Yet, because these goals have become a prominent part of these states’ rhetorical positions, and have become significant parts of their national perceptions and understandings, it is becoming increasingly difficult for those states to back away from the issue. Accordingly, should conflict begin to escalate on a low level, these states may be left with no better choice than to escalate it to a broader extent.

In the case of China and Japan, it may be that, should a military skirmish break out in the South China Sea, both states will need to escalate militarily in order to “save face” domestically and maintain their rhetorical position internationally. The Chinese Communist government cannot afford to back away from the South China Sea, especially after it has premised its continued governance on its ability to raise China to a position of prominence. The Japanese government cannot afford to allow China a victory in the South China Sea, thereby confirming the Japanese peoples’ fears of a rising China. The leaderships of these states have decided that it is more within their interest to escalate these territorial disputes to the brink of conflict instead of actually resolving them through conflict; however, should events spiral out of their control and conflict escalate beyond their intentions, they may be left with little option but to escalate further. A potential war between China and Japan would be devastating for regional stability and prosperity; as such, the potential for these states to slip into conflict, which seems more and more likely considering the extent to which they will “saber-rattle” and the character of their rhetoric, is perhaps the most significant security issue facing the region today.

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