Will China Become a Superpower?

Summary:  Will China become a superpower in the next decade?  US opinions have divided into two views.  The US military and its proxies describe China as a more than a rival — as a looming threat.  Others, most especially Wall Street, see China as about to slide into recession.  Or depression.  Or sink into the sea, like Atlantis.  They describe two different worlds, both shaped by American needs and fears.  Here are two other perspectives on China.

Article:  “China’s Not a Superpower Chinese Translation“, Minxin Pei, The Diplomat, January 2010 — The author is a Prof of Government at Claremont McKenna College; his latest book is China: Trapped Transition (2006).  It’s worth reading in full.  Opening:

With the United States apparently in terminal decline as the world’s sole superpower, the fashionable question to ask is which country will be the new superpower? The near-unanimous answer, it seems, is China. Poised to overtake Japan as the world’s 2nd largest economy in 2010, the Middle Kingdom has all the requisite elements of power – an extensive industrial base, a strong state, a nuclear-armed military, a continental-sized territory, a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and a large population base–to be considered as Uncle Sam’s most eligible and logical equal. Indeed, the perception that China has already become the world’s second superpower has grown so strong that some in the West have proposed a G2 – the United States and China – as a new partnership to address the world’s most pressing problems.

To be sure, the perception of China as the next superpower is grounded, at least in part, in the country’s amazing rise over the last three decades. Powered by near-double digit economic growth since 1979, China has transformed itself from an isolated, impoverished and demoralized society into a confident, prospering global trading power. With a GDP of $4.4 trillion and total foreign trade of $2.6 trillion in 2008, China has firmly established itself as a premier world economic powerhouse.

Yet, despite such undeniable achievements, it may be too soon to regard China as the world’s next superpower.

For a response, the rest of the story (as Paul Harvey used to say), see this by guest author Young J. Kim (former Captain in the US Army, served 2 tours in Iraq; currently a PhD candidate at Korea University in Seoul).

Guest article by Young J. Kim


Pei is not discounting what China has accomplished, many notable inventions and scientific discoveries range from the Chinese be the first to develop gun powder weapons and the first to discover planetary motion 500 years before Brahe and Kepler. However there are reasons that China didn’t expand into world influence. These are the same factors that had China not expand beyond itself unlike Europe, despite having built ocean-going vessels that could sail half way around the world, predating Columbus by almost a century. China simply has too many internal problems for it to ever commit to a path of global influence.

All of the problems listed by Pei are in fact nothing new to the Chinese experience. Central to all of this is what to do about the hundreds of millions of peasants. Ever since the first Chinese imperial dynasty this problem has plagued the central government. China as a civilization could function as a civilization but as a country it is simply too large and too centralized to govern and manage effectively.

China’s history, and its problems today

Nearly every single dynastic change was the result of peasant revolts; foreign invasions for the most part toppled what was already unstable. Even as recently as the final dynasty of the Qing the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) saw more Chinese dead during this period than the Japanese ever inflicted, with estimates up to 30-40 Chinese million dead. Throughout Chinese history nearly all of its bloodiest conflicts coincided with dynastic changes. The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) of today has not negated these same factors that plagued Chinese civilization repeatedly throughout history. We should not expect that the Chinese could escape their history anymore than we could.

So the question is asking why does China seem to want to assert itself now? That I believe is tied to a centuries long transition that only recently the Chinese had caught up. Wealth no longer comes from trade along the trade routes of Central Asia but through maritime shipping. This has only made geopolitical conditions for the Chinese even worse off.  Policies attempting to push economic development into the interior of China won’t work due to unnecessary transportation costs to the coastal regions. Their infrastructure in those regions is still undeveloped. China can’t develop them unless they build up a strong domestic economy to support its construction. For China to do this will require that they make that transition from export to a domestic economy. Japan is the only country in the regions with a sizable domestic economy that self-generates its own development. Japan as well as some other countries in Asia had to make this rather painful transition where some even now have not completed.

Also China has internal ethnic tensions, over-centralization of federal government, massive corruption, massive pollution – I can go on and on about why China won’t become a superpower.

China and its neighbors

China may be a security concern for the countries in Northeast and Southeast Asia, but nothing they cannot manage on their own.  These countries can hold China at bay within their respective regions.

In Northeast Asia alone the Koreans and Japanese combined have more than enough assets for deterrence. If only the Japanese eliminate their outdated stance on pacifism. There is no need for the US to continually subsidize their security at our expense. Northeast Asia has the technological and economic base to build and develop as a regional security bloc, but there is no incentive so long as the US remains — especially if we continually allow for access to our markets at an advantage.

China poses no existential threat to India. Why try to invade and conquer, only to rule an additional billion or so people when you are having great difficulty ruling your own billion or so citizens?

Southeast Asia? That is an area of interests for nearly all the countries in Asia. We already have the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force {see Wikipedia} sending ship deployments from the TGT Triangle (Tokyo, Guam, Taiwan) with no fewer than 65 vessels to SE Asia and as far away to East Africa.

For Vietnam, Communism was the vehicle for anti-colonialism and independence as against the French and later American. China has subjected Vietnam to various pressures for centuries. Vietnamese history is littered with many rebellions for independence and direct state-to-state conflicts consistently throughout its history. The Sino-Vietnamese War repeats old conflicts, when Vietnam refused Chinese reassertion into their region.

That being said the Chinese never penetrated into SE Asia beyond Vietnam.  China has never successfully invaded Thailand, Cambodia, Laos or even Burma (Burma repelled China’s small invasion force in 1765).  Vietnam was successfully invaded; this had much to do with Chinese interests of Hainan Island — ajacent to Vietnam, Chinese territory for many centuries.  During the Ming Dynasty China made its farthest penetration into Vietnam.  Even then China didn’t penetrate much beyond Northern Vietnam, leaving the previously mentioned SE Asian countries pretty much alone. China’s interest has always been around Hainan Island.  The conflict over the waters in that region date back centuries.

Today other SE Asian countries watch China’s efforts to secure the ocean trade routes to which it is absolutely dependent upon. Previously there had been no problems between Malaysia and China, or Indonesia and China.  Now they will in all likelihood develop a shared interest against China (aside from ethnic Chinese being so dominant in the commerce within those countries). Just as it is the case in NE Asia, SE Asia having a shared security interest is also economically capable. ASEAN combined would have the 8th or 9th largest economy in the world. Shared interests with Japan and Korea for securing their commercial access makes all of the countries pretty much on board with how to deal with China.

China and the US

China is not an existential threat to the US, nor will it ever be. Honestly the preferred strategy should be to end the China threat industry and all of its nonsense, scale back and reduce our forces, but seek opportunity to sell and co-develop weapons with those countries. Our position should be to never get involved with their disputes, rather trade with them. We can always tailor what we sell to whom we sell and with that finally balance our deficits in trade, our governmental budget, and our diplomatic reputation.


The point is that in SE Asia no Asian continental power could subdue that region fully not even the Mongols succeeded in their attempts to invade. The relative power positions of China now is not that much different than in the past. The only major and permanent change to Asia is that Japan became and still is a major power and that’s it.

Response from FM to one paragraph of Minxin Pei’s article

“has all the requisite elements of power – an extensive industrial base, a strong state, a nuclear-armed military, a continental-sized territory, a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and a large population base … {AND} the capabilities of a superpower: a technologically advanced economy, a hi-tech military, a fully integrated nation, insuperable military and economic advantages vis-à-vis potential competitors, capacity to provide global public goods and an appealing ideology”

This sets the bar very high. What are the odds of any nation retaining all these things on a sustained basis?   The US is the only nation in the history of the world to meet all of these criteria (although there have been many regional powers).  That’s probably a historical accident.

  • Europe’s evolution wrecked by the 1914-1945 horror show.
  • Russia and China vaporizing themselves (1917-1998 and 1949-1976).

For more information

Other articles about China’s path to becoming a superpower:

  1. China’s Quest for a Superpower Military“, John Tkacik, Jr., Heritage Foundation, 17 May 2007
  2. China: The Mythification of it being an emergent superpower“, Dr. Subhash Kapila, South Asia Analysis Group, 1 May 2008
  3. The China Superpower Hoax“, Steven Hill (bio here), TruthDig, 23 September 2010
  4. China as a Superpower“, Joschka Fischer, 3 October 2010 — Fischer was Germany’s foreign minister and vice-chancellor from 1998 – 2005, and a leader in the German Green Party for almost 20 years.
  5. China in 2020: A New Type of Superpower“, Hu Angang discusses his new book, Brookings, 1 June 2011
  6. Henry Kissinger: China Won’t Be Next Superpower“, The Canadian Press, 18 June 2011

Other posts about China:

  1. Power shifts from West to East: the end of the post-WWII regime in the news, 20 December 2007
  2. China becomes a super-power (geopolitical analysis need not be war-mongering), 9 July 2008
  3. Words to fear in the 21st century: Lǎo hǔ, lǎo hǔ, Lǎo hǔ, 14 July 2008
  4. China – the mysterious other pole of the world economy, 22 July 2009
  5. Another big step for China on its road to becoming a great power, 27 July 2009
  6. Will China collapse?, 5 August 2009
  7. A revolution is not a dinner party. Thoughts about the future of China, 19 August 2009
  8. Update about China: a new center of the world, 13 December 2009
  9. Fertilizer overuse destroying Chinese soil, 18 February 2010
  10. Rare earths – a hidden but strategic battleground between the US and China, 5 May 2010
  11. Today’s example of the inscrutable mystery of China’s economic statistics, 13 May 2010
  12. How China builds its commercial empire, 12 July 2010
  13. The West has power, but often little self-insight, 19 September 2010
  14. A look at the future (it’s already here, but it’s not in the USA), 29 September 2010
  15. Why China will again rise to the top, and their most important advantage over America, 11 November 2010
  16. Two pictures show an important difference between China and America, 2 February 2011
  17. China and America have several similar weaknesses.  Our hubris prevents us from seeing this., 12 April 2011

This post originally appeared at Fabius Maximus and is reproduced here with permission. Check out Fabius Maximus for excellent comments on this piece.

One Response to "Will China Become a Superpower?"

  1. ppapageorgiou   September 13, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    I disagree. The article doesn't touch on the factors likely to make China a superpower, which are control of the world's high-tech production and a state structured as a mega-corporation.