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China: A great power but not a superpower


In recent years, the narrative that the U.S. and China are engaged in what some are now calling Cold War II has gained considerable traction. Advanced by figures such as former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and historian Niall Ferguson, this narrative frames the geopolitical relationship between Washington and Beijing in terms reminiscent of the titanic struggle for global supremacy waged by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War in the decades following World War II.

It further frames this Sino-American relationship as one of growing ideological and strategic rivalry between the two countries, significant economic competition, intensifying military competition and the promotion of antithetical political values, with the U.S. promoting democratic ideals and human rights and China emphasizing autocratic governance and state control.

Underpinning this Cold War narrative is the assumption that China is a superpower, a peer-competitor of the United States playing roughly the same role as that played by the Soviet Union during the actual Cold War. And therein lies the rub; for whatever else it might be, China is simply not a superpower — and has little prospect of becoming one in any realistically conceivable future. 

Viewed dispassionately and in the cold light of realpolitik, of course, China is unambiguously more than just another player on the world stage. It is unambiguously a “great power” — a country possessing both substantial instruments of national power and the will to use these instruments to influence political outcomes around the world. Beijing has a modern and growing nuclear arsenal, an impressive fleet of over 600 satellites (including 229 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites), the world’s largest navy (measured in terms of number of vessels), potent cyber capabilities and economic clout that few other nations can match. On those grounds alone it must be considered a very powerful country.

But China has something else – perhaps the key ingredient, along with objective sources of power, of “great powerness” – a perception of itself as a great power with a central role to play in the drama of international politics. China today is heir to an old and enduring identity – forged during the centuries of China’s imperial ascendancy – as a major player on the international stage.

The country’s ruling class feels this in its bones and acts accordingly. And this identity – shared by rulers and ruled alike – compels China to act like a great power, seeking to influence events around the world even in the absence of direct economic imperatives or security concerns.

So, China is unquestionably a great power. But a superpower? No way.

Based on both the original definition of the term and the experience of the Soviet-American Cold War, in order to qualify as a superpower, a state must possess sufficient military, economic and cultural power not only to influence events around the world but to shape international norms and rules to its advantage. In short, superpowers are distinguished from merely great powers in that they are not just consequential global players with a significant role to play on the world stage, but have the full panoply of hard, soft and sharp power resources necessary to dominate and shape that stage. 

Thus defined, in the post-World War II era, both the United States and the Soviet Union were clearly superpowers. Both – in their own ways and to varying degrees – had the power, reach and ambition necessary to dominate and shape the space of international politics for over 40 years.

But China today falls far short of superpower standing. To be sure, China dominates its home region economically and exercises considerable influence farther afield. But it lacks the ability to project military power beyond its immediate hinterland, is facing a concerted effort to balance it diplomatically and militarily across the Indo-Pacific region, has almost no soft power resources to exploit, is not the hub of a globe-spanning alliance system and remains more a rule-taker than rule-maker in the global institutional space.

All this being the case, the conclusion is undeniable: While China is unquestionably both a regional power and a great power, when it comes to superpower status, it simply doesn’t make the cut.

Nor, it must be said, is it likely to ascend to the status of superpower any time soon. China’s population is both getting old and shrinking; its economy looks increasingly like those of other countries that have come to be mired in the so-called “middle income trap”; and its once bright geopolitical star has begun to fade as countries around the world begin to take steps to balance against what they see as an increasingly belligerent great power.

To be sure, there are those who look at the evidence and come to different conclusions. But to most serious China watchers, the trend lines have become obvious. China is peaking — and is doing so long before assuming the mantle of superpower.

And if this is the case – if China is something less than a full-blown superpower – then the whole edifice of Cold War II and its derivative Containment 2.0 is revealed for what it is: a nostalgia-inflected delusion fraught with the danger of overreaction, needless geopolitical friction and possibly even tragically unnecessary war.

What the U.S. is dealing with in China is a regional great power with perhaps pretensions to becoming something greater but no real prospect of realizing those pretensions. A responsible and restrained U.S. grand strategy would be focused on that challenge, on prudently balancing a great power as it seeks to assert its regional dominance and seek a somewhat larger role on the wider world stage. An irresponsible and unrestrained U.S. grand strategy, on the other hand, would inflate that challenge, conjuring up in place of a plateauing great power a phantasmagorical superpower bent on global domination — a monster that it must go abroad to contain, if not destroy.

Let’s hope “responsible and restrained” carries the day.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.

Tags China China-US relations Chinese aggression Chinese Communist Party Cold War Economy of China Kevin Rudd Mike Pompeo Soviet Union US-China relations

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