Many people in the West believe that China is already a superpower, or will quickly replace the United States to become a superpower. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center reveals that 44 percent of Americans believe that China is the top global economic power, while in reality, China’s economy is barely one-third the size of the U. S. economy. This kind of misconception has engendered many unrealistic fears about China.
The truth is that China is not a superpower, and I doubt it will ever become one.
Fareed Zakaria, CNN host and Washington Post columnist, defined in his bestselling book The Post-American World that a superpower is a country that achieves dominance in ideas or ideology, an economic system, and military power.
In terms of ideas or ideology, the Chinese are probably more confused than anyone else in the world. During the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese traditions, including Confucianism, were destroyed. Communism has proved to be disastrous, and no one believes in it anymore. In today’s China where money is king, people have become disillusioned with any notion of ideals. There has been serious moral decay in society.
In recent years, the Chinese government has called for building “a harmonious society.” Harmony is a virtuous concept deeply rooted in Chinese culture and the Confucian tradition. It could become a new ideology for China. However, it has been overly used in propaganda and has become a cliché rather than a meaningful ideal.
The United States remains the country standing for the universal ideals that people around the world aspire to – liberty and democracy. Unlike Americans who have a clear message for the world, the Chinese do not have a vision for themselves, let alone to influence the world. I have talked to Chinese officials, scholars, business people and students. None of them see China as a superpower. In contrast, many of them look up to the United States as a model and admire the “American way of life.”
Economically, China’s achievements are indeed impressive. In the past 30 years, China has sustained nearly double-digit growth. However, we need to keep in mind that China started from a very low level of GDP. Much of its growth comes from heavy investment in infrastructure. In 2009, China’s per capita GDP was only about $3,600, compared with $46,000 in the United States. Among the world’s top-10 largest companies, the United States claims five, and China has none.
With all the troubles on Wall Street, it is easy to forget that China’s economic success is actually a triumph of capitalism. In recent decades, China has been learning from the West and now primarily practices capitalism. Although China is searching for a recipe that suits the country’s unique situation, namely a “socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics,” it has been a trial-and-error exercise. China has not yet established an economic model that has proven it can withstand long-term tests.
Some people believe that China will eventually surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy. Others argue that the line between the U. S. and China may never cross. I believe that China’s economy will continue to grow rapidly over the next 10 to 15 years. After that, it will slow down when its per capita income approaches $10,000. That will make China’s economy close to the size of the U. S. economy.
Militarily, China’s military spending is only a fraction of what the U. S. spends. A 2009 Pentagon report estimated China’s total military spending at between $105 and $150 billion, compared to $719 billion by the United States. Until recently, China did not have a foreign policy or a global strategy. Even its current foreign policies are almost exclusively commercially-focused.
Harvard professor Joseph Nye has a more detailed analysis about whether China will become a contender with the United States. As he pointed out, “The fact that China is not likely to become a peer competitor to the US on a global basis does not mean that it could not challenge the US in Asia, and the dangers of conflict can never be ruled out.”
I think China’s influence in Asia will be limited. Who is China’s ally? Singapore? North Korea? India will be more likely allied with the U. S. than with China, and we know Japan’s position. As much as I love China, I have to agree with Singaporean scholar Simon Tay’s comment, “no one in Asia wants to live in a Chinese-dominated world. There is no Chinese dream to which people aspire.”
By all measures, China is not a superpower. With other major economies such as India and Russia on the rise, it is hard to see China ever becoming a superpower.
Despite all the problems the U. S. faces, I still believe that the United States has stronger long-term political and economic fundamentals than China. Many vital functions of Chinese society, including its education and healthcare systems, are far from sophisticated. China is not yet a country of the rule of law. The government still arbitrarily detains dissidents and censors the Internet. Corruption and nepotism are rampant. Chinese culture tends to reward the mediocre rather than the extraordinary. There are many uncertainties in China’s future including the ramifications of environmental degradation, an aging population, political instability, social strife and ethnic conflicts.
However, China will be a major economic power. It will probably be the second most important country in the world after the United States on many critical international issues. China’s presence as a major economic power will be good for the world as well as for the U. S., because no one wants to live in an American-dominated world either. China’s strength is that it can be assertive without being confrontational. It is crucial that the United States makes China a partner, not an enemy, because the future of the world’s prosperity and stability depends on it.