A superpower is a state which has the ability to project its power on a worldwide scale to protect its interests, primarily through its military and economic strengths over other nations. Currently there is only one defined superpower in the world; the United States of America. However there is fierce debate over whether other rising powers such as China and India, and even some Trans National Corporations (TNCs) are poised to become superpowers in the near future, or are even superpowers already. More specifically there is debate over whether China’s size and economy are enough to propel it to superpower status, or if it simply lacks the prowess that makes the USA such an influential state.
In 2003, China launched its first human into space; only the third nation in history to do so. What is particularly striking about such an achievement is that it is debatably the first non-superpower state to do so. The USA is no doubt a superpower, and the Soviet Union was considered a superpower in its time. China however is on the verge, and subtle indicators such as the success of its space program could provide intuitive evidence for a case supporting its emergence as a superpower within the next few years.
In terms of the hard facts, China has a booming economy; illustrated by a growth rate of 9% per year, as well as a hoard of equivalent $2.7 trillion in foreign currency. China currently ranks as the second largest economy in the world behind the USA, a status which it has risen to only within the last 30 years. China is the USA’s largest source of foreign imports, accounting for $233.6 billion in trade surplus in 2008. Such clear examples of China’s economic prowess is what persuades many people to believe China will emerge above the USA as a superpower – a view shared by a colossal 53% of Chinese residents, and 46% of Americans. It would appear that China has the economic strength that is by definition required to become a superpower.
However, other statistics make it more difficult to draw conclusions regarding China’s economic strength, and its potential as a superpower. In 2003, China’s GDP ranked 6th in the world, as well as 9th in terms of its share of world trade. Although these statistics are by no means poor on the world stage, they are far from what would be expected of a superpower. For comparison, the USA ranked first in the world for both GDP and world trade – not just by a meagre sum. Such statistics would imply China is farther off from superpower status than previously thought, and is not at all ‘poised’ to become a superpower; at least no more than Germany and the UK which both rank above it.
We must also take into account China’s recent history, as it is incredibly relevant to determining whether it is ‘poised’ to become the world’s number 1 superpower. Although many of the statistics surrounding its economic strength conflict, and are seemingly not as strong as those of the USA, it is important to consider the fact China built up the majority of its wealth over the last 30 years. Its rate of growth is unrivalled, and it is this fact which gives China at least the potential to blossom into a full-fledged superpower in the near future. However there is uncertainty whether China’s current growth rates can be sustained to see through its emergence as a superpower. China lacks a central banking system which may stunt future growth, as well as concerns over fulfilling its growing energy demands (its future energy requirements may be costly and stunt economic growth even further). An increase in general living standards brought about due to China’s economic growth may also result in a growing dependant age cohort, as those born during Mao’s booming reign age and become a burden on the economy, as they are no longer in the working age bracket. On the contrary, an ageing population failed to stop the USA from maintaining its superpower status, so it is still a probability that China will still be able to overtake the USA in this regard.
Pranab Bardhan of Yale University believes that China’s structural and institutional issues will ‘hobble’ it for years to come, preventing it from becoming the world’s number 1 superpower. Over half the population earns under $2 a day according to the World Bank; it must be remembered that although China’s economy has expanded by leaps and bounds over the last few decades, its wealth must be shared by a huge population of 1.3 billion and rising.
Since 1989, allocations to China’s defence budget have risen by over 10% each year; a factor also indicative of China’s emergence as a superpower, as by definition superpowers require a large military in order to impose their will in a quick and targeted manner against any opposing state. Contrasting to what may be expected, is that China’s military spending is not aimed towards achieving the global power projection capable of a superpower, but rather for practically dealing with local issues and border disputes. China covers an extremely large land mass which is perpetually under dispute, and so such spending is fairly justified. However, this is yet another factor which would hint at China’s inability to overtake the USA as the world’s leading superpower. China has no intention in investing in aircraft carriers – of which the USA has 12. China’s single submarine, capable of firing underwater missiles, has not left port since 1988. Its land-based missile force is old and unreliable, and vulnerable to a first strike. Although China’s military force has expanded drastically over the last two decades, it is handicapped by China’s weak military industrial core; and remains utterly outclassed by the speed and efficiency of the US military. Once again it appears that China, although showing the potential to become a superpower, is unlikely to shift the USA from its dominant global position.
Politically China is strong, maintaining good relations with its neighbouring countries. China’s mentality over the last 30 years has been ‘harmonious development’, in an effort to convince nearby states that what is good for China is good for them. China is a member of the outreach 5, and maintains good ties with western states. Furthermore, China’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 2008 further increased western approval and displayed China’s new-found prosperity on a world stage. It seems China’s politics will not be any hindrance if China were to emerge as a world superpower.
Several factors would point towards China emerging as a superpower within the next few years. Its economy has been rapidly expanding in the last few decades at rates never seen before, which would indicate it is poised to become a superpower, despite some questionability regarding the sustainability of such growth. Politically China is sound, and has good relations with both western and neighbouring states. Both these factors allow China to make the utmost utility out of its ‘soft power’, something which the USA does with such finesse. Militarily however, China is lacking the substance of superpowers; it simply lacks the ability to deploy troops anywhere in the world to enforce the governments’ will. This may evoke doubt that it will overtake the USA as the world’s leading power. However the USA’s financial system shows signs of weakness, and there is growing discomfort amongst its people, manifested by the recent ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests. The USA is particularly prone to economic downturns, which China can cope with well due to its low labour costs and lack of consumerism on a large scale (although growing). If the USA’s economy weakens in the event of another recession or economic downturn, and if China’s current growth rates are sustained, it is entirely possible that China may overtake it as a world power; however there is still much to be done in regards to China’s military strength, and the fact much of its population still lives below the poverty line.