There is an ongoing discussion that China is emerging as a new superpower and replacing the US from the global power structure. China emerging strongly from the growing global economic crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic and Donald Trump’s ally-alienating policies within NATO for the last four years have pushed this narrative forward considerably. There is no doubt that China has already become the global powerhouse economically, and is expected to surpass the US as the world’s biggest economy by 2028. China is still behind but on its way to surpassing the US in military power with increased spending on weapons technology and developing several secretive weapons.
There is no doubt over China acquiring economic and military strength superior to the US sooner than later, but the question is, can the Communist Party-led China be ever as formidable and complete a superpower as the US has been for the last eight decades? When the Soviet Union competed with the US to claim superpower status during the Cold War period, it somewhat matched America’s strength in leading alliances and military power. However, at the height of its power, the Soviet Union was never a match for US domination economically or culturally.
Like the Soviet Union in the past, China now faces several geopolitical and cultural challenges before it can reach global superpower status similar to the US. China can’t aspire to get the same respect and acceptance worldwide, even if its economic and military power overtakes the US. A democratic US will always have ideological, political, and cultural superiority compared to a Communist China.
One-party Communist country
Although China has developed a hybrid system to grow spectacularly on the economic front, it is still a one-party Communist country. Politically, it has become further closed and centralised than ever before. The Chinese Communist Party is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. In 2011, when it was celebrating its 90th anniversary, I was fortunate to attend an invite-only meeting of the Chinese Political Science Association in Shanghai. Many top Chinese political scientists openly discussed the possibilities of China opening up to a multi-party electoral system. That sort of discussion is almost impossible to imagine in Xi Jinping-led China now.
No doubt, China is a strong state with a powerful party bureaucracy, but its politics is potentially very fragile. Under a closed system, it is almost impossible to predict when that spark will arrive to ignite a political upheaval. This is a country where the Interpol chief or a globally famous billionaire can disappear without any official explanation. Hundreds of Chinese millionaires have been living abroad to protect their wealth from future uncertainties and to avail the opportunities of open societies.
China has become rich, it is spending heavily on its university education, but 600,000 Chinese students go abroad for their higher studies every year. China’s economy might be booming for decades, but 10 million Chinese have traveled to other countries to find jobs while 51 million people from all over the world have moved to the US for better work and improved living.
Despite its ongoing political troubles, there is no doubt that the American political system is resilient to any attack from destabilising forces. But that sort of trust in the system continues to elude China. Though China has been enjoying political stability for long, the Chinese people don’t have similar trust and confidence in their political system as the Americans have in theirs. This will not help China command the respect of other countries in its competition to become the global superpower.
Geopolitics also does not favour China as it has the US. Unlike the US, China is surrounded by several powerful and competing countries. Among them, at least two, Russia and India, see the dream of becoming superpowers. China has also fought wars against them and continues to have several border disputes. China is neither safe nor secure in its neighbourhood to freely engage in political and military projects in other parts of the world as the US does.
Besides China’s location in a tough neighbourhood, it also lacks trusted, powerful allies. On the one hand, the democratic US has established strong political and military cooperation with many regionally powerful countries like the UK, Germany, Japan, and Australia from the Cold War days. It continues to keep those allies, while getting new ones like India. On the other hand, China’s only significant ally in the world is Russia, but that alliance suffers from many contradictions and has not passed the test of time. It will be hard to imagine China gaining the upper hand militarily, economically, and politically in the future, vis-à-vis the US and its allies’ combined forces.
The US stands firm
The US has been and will continue to be the global cultural superpower, and there is minimal possibility of China posing any serious challenge to that status. Not only does its democracy and freedom provide ideological superiority to the US, its cultural influence through movies, media, music, and literature also extends across the world. The US is a country of immigrants, and it represents and enriches the cultures and ideas of the world. But China has remained a closed country for long. While English remains the world’s language, it is almost impossible to imagine Mandarin taking up that place.
China will always be struggling to catch up to the US and take the lead position in the global power race. Like the Soviet Union, its superpower status will be limited and confined to certain aspects of it. The US has everything to hold its own long in this competition if it doesn’t often engage in self-sabotaging acts like it has in the last four years.
Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden. Views are personal.
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