Can China rise as the next superpower?
Across the 20th century and well after the cold war, one would define a superpower as “a country that can project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, and sometimes, in more than one region of the globe at a time, and so may plausibly attain the status of global hegemony”. But with changing times, meanings too change. With Globalization and economies more reliant on one another than ever before, the military might is no more a factor to be considered while judging whether a country has superpower status or not.
As Lyman Miller puts it, “The basic components of superpower stature may be measured along four axes of power: military, economic, political, and cultural”, with equal importance on all fronts. We shall examine these four factors one by one and try to decipher China’s position on the global stage and gauge whether China can rise as the world’s next superpower, or already is.
On the economic front, ever since the economic crisis of 2008, economic power has shifted from the west, more towards China. When America’s financial market collapsed, it was China that bailed out the west, by buying bonds worth billions. Sure, there were ulterior motives, such as to ensure that the crisis is somewhat contained and doesn’t affect China anymore. But by doing so, it established itself as economic might. This one move brought its status not just as an economic superpower, but as a responsible one, one which was willing to deploy resources for safeguarding the world economy.
It is no doubt that China has one of the largest armies in the world. According to many experts, China’s military strength only seconds the US and Russia. Under Xi Jinping, they have started to project their power by setting up naval bases in Sri Lanka and Djibouti. And as per our conventional definition of a superpower, it qualifies as one without a doubt.
While the first two pillars of what makes a country a superpower for China are strong, the rest two is where it lacks. Despite being a permanent member of the UN security council, its questionable human rights record has caused much damage to its reputation as a “world leader” on the political front. Events like Tienanmen Square, when the country had been placed under embargo and faced severe trade sanctions, siding with Pakistan by using its veto to protect a terrorist like Masood Azhar, their treatment of the Uighur, etc., have raised eyebrows across the world. Although China might have political “clout”, it is not looked upon favourably.
China, under Mao, underwent a strong cultural revolution, which in the process destroyed large portions of Chinese culture. Such a setback heavily affected its ability to exert soft power, as an older culture equates to greater influence. Cultural power goes hand in hand with political power. A responsible country also finds it more comfortable to exert soft power, which China lacks, on both fronts. For instance, its movie industry is lacklustre in comparison to Bollywood or Hollywood.
On paper, China can truly win over the world and emerge as the world’s next superpower, but it can never truly conquer people’s hearts. A strong economy and military, along with grand initiatives like the OBOR, have put it on the road to superpower status. But mismanagement of the COVID-19 situation, giving bad loans to developing countries and harassing them, have tarnished China’s image deeply. Only time can tell whether the balance tips in China’s favour or not.