« back to table of contents

China an Emerging Superpower?
By Lyman Miller

People have been predicting China’s emergence as a superpower since the days of Napoleon, who purportedly appreciated China’s potential as a world power and cautioned against waking the sleeping dragon. China’s subordination into the Western international system in the 1839-1842 Opium War and its decline as the “sick man” of East Asia for the rest of the nineteenth and for the first half of the twentieth centuries dulled, but never extinguished, the expectation that, sooner or later, China would again dominate the world.

Several recent events have provoked the latest announcements of China’s looming ascent to superpower stature and have suggested that these long-held expectations are, at long last, coming true. In October 2003, China launched its first human into space, joining the United States and the former Soviet Union as the only countries to have done so. American media have recently taken notice of China’s efforts to expand and diversify its access to sources of oil in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and unsettlingly close to home Canada. The world’s industrial economies, including the United States, have inferred from the giant sucking sound created by lost manufacturing jobs and from the flood of Chinese exports into their markets that China is becoming the world’s manufacturing hub. Meanwhile, analysts ponder the implications for global security of China’s military modernization effort, now two decades long, and its promise to develop a “revolution in military affairs with Chinese characteristics.”

As portentous as the events may seem, there are good reasons to be skeptical that China will achieve superpower stature anytime soon. By all measures of international power, China has a long way to go to rival the power in international affairs of the United States in the manner that the Soviet Union did.

What is a "Superpower"?

The term “superpower” is often used loosely in popular discourse to describe anything that achieves unmatched dominance from the status achieved in international affairs by the United States since World War II to the unrivalled position achieved by Microsoft, and, in their time, by the 1960s Boston Celtics and the 1990s Chicago Bulls. The discussion here will be better served by a somewhat more precise definition: a “superpower” is a country that has the capacity to 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 hegemon.

The basic components of superpower stature may be measured along four axes of power: military, economic, political, and cultural (or what political scientist Joseph Nye has termed “soft”). Using these dimensions, arguably, Britain was the prototype superpower in the nineteenth century. Britain’s industrial revolution preceded other European states by several decades, giving London superior economic, military, and political power that allowed Britain to reign as the international order’s hegemon from 1815 until the early twentieth century. An island country lacking in industrial resources, Britain created a worldwide empire of colonies that sustained British economic power and made the British pound the standard of exchange in the international economy. Britain’s wealth was sustained by the maritime superiority of its navy and commercial fleet and by the chain of bases and strategic strongpoints from Gibraltar through the Suez Canal and around the Cape of Good Hope to the Straits of Malacca that it commanded. Britain was the prevailing power against which all of the late-coming industrial powers, France, Germany, and Russia, competed in the nineteenth century’s rivalries for spheres of influence and colonies in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia during the great wave of imperialism after 1870. Britain sustained its hegemonic position for a nearly a century, until the rivalry of Germany under Wilhelm II and the “long war” from 1914 to 1945 ultimately undermined its hegemony.

The United States succeeded Britain as the world’s second superpower as an immediate consequence of World War II and the devastation of all of the other great powers of the prewar period. America’s global economic strength reflected its longstanding prominence in maritime commerce and especially the maturation of its enormous industrial capacity over several decades after take-off following the Civil War. But its military dominance came late, with its gigantic mobilization during World War II. On the eve of the war, the United States Army numbered 270,000; at the war’s end, the United States had more than twelve million troops under arms. Although the United States demobilized all but 1.4 million of these troops in the first two years after the end of the war, the onset of the Cold War decisively reversed this course. With the institution of a centralized foreign affairs and security apparatus of a scale and complexity unprecedented in American history under the 1947 National Security Act and the military mobilization authorized by the watershed 1950 directive NSC 68, Washington acquired the panoply of instruments to pursue a far more internationalist and interventionist approach to international affairs. Building a system of alliances, the United States established a global chain of bases and military access relationships that allowed Washington to project military force anywhere in the world. During the war, the American economy supplied not only American forces but also helped supply those of Britain and the USSR. In the postwar period, defense industries remained an abiding presence in the budgets of successive Democratic and Republican administrations alike and in the American economy overall. And in the early postwar years, the United States was the world’s only nuclear power.

American economic power in the postwar years was similarly without parallel. While all of the other industrial powers saw their economies devastated by the war, the American economy was revitalized by it. In the early postwar years, U.S. trade constituted 40 percent of the total world trade volume. Reflecting American economic hegemony, the American dollar became the standard to which, under the 1944 Bretton Woods system, most other countries pegged their currencies. American economic strength was used to consolidate political support among other countries important to American globalism through the 1947 Marshall Plan in Europe and the 1949 “Point Four” program elsewhere.

In the early postwar years, the United States enjoyed a moment of unmatched global power, leading some to predict an “American century” paralleling the heyday of British hegemony. The rise of Soviet power challenged this position, and for a time in the 1970s, with the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and the revision of American security commitments under the 1969 Guam Doctrine—it seemed that American hegemony was in serious retreat. The reassertion of American power in the 1980s under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and then the collapse of the USSR altogether in 1991, however, resoundingly confirmed American hegemony in the international system.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has enjoyed a period of dominance in international affairs that rivals its position immediately after World War II. Debate about American dominance has focused not about its reality but about its limits, its duration, and the purposes to which it might be used in recasting the international order. The Bush regime’s unilateral adventure in Iraq has raised doubts about the limits of American power and its purposes. The rise of a united Europe, and perhaps China and other centers of power, suggest to some that American dominance may be more a “unipolar moment” than a “new American century.”
The USSR was a Eurasian continental power, not a superpower, at the end of World War II. At the end of the war, it had, like the United States, twelve million troops under arms. But under Stalin, Moscow sought to consolidate a ring of buffer states around its periphery. While demobilizing some eight million troops, it retained four million to garrison the cluster of East European bloc regimes it installed on the USSR’s western frontier. It negotiated critical Soviet interests first with the Nationalist ROC government and then with the communist PRC regime in China, and it created a client regime under Kim Il-song in North Korea on the USSR’s eastern frontiers. It did seek to expand its influence and potential control over other regions on its periphery in Iran, in the Turkish straits, in Greece, and in central Europe. But in each case, it backed off when faced by concerted American and British pressure. In contrast to American economic strength, the Soviet economy was devastated by the war. Although Moscow eventually created a community of planned economies and trade partners in its East European satellites, broader international trade was limited by the non-convertibility of the ruble and the necessity for barter agreements. Moscow also commanded political influence through the network of Marxist-Leninist parties and movements throughout the world. But in the postwar world, Moscow’s direction was progressively diluted by the force of indigenous nationalisms aroused by the war and by the perennial fractiousness of ideological movements.

The Soviet Union acquired standing as a superpower only after the mid-1950s. It broke the American nuclear monopoly with the detonation of its first atomic bomb in 1949 and first hydrogen bomb in 1953. With the success of its missile programs, signified by its launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and the flight of first cosmonaut Yuriy Gagarin in 1961, and with its development of long-range bombers and nuclear submarines, the Soviet Union emerged as a power of global strategic reach. By the 1960s, it achieved strategic parity with the United States.

Partly as a consequence of geopolitical deadlock in Europe, where after 1955 two powerful military alliance systems faced off, Moscow, under Nikita Khrushchev, began a more activist foreign policy than Stalin’s to assert influence in Third World areas beyond the immediate Soviet periphery. Moscow worked to recruit clients and potential allies in a global contest with the United States in newly independent states in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. The rise of Soviet power abroad seemed to be confirmed at home with impressive economic growth rates throughout the 1950s and, to a lesser degree, in the 1960s.
With the historical examples of Britain and the Soviet Union and the yardstick of continuing American power today in hand, we may assess the candidacy of China as a potential superpower.

China's Economic Power

The expanding range of China’s economic interactions has provoked the most recent attention to China as an emerging superpower. American media have taken note recently of Chinese diplomacy in search of long-term sources of oil, while the growth of the PRC’s oil imports has had impact on gasoline prices that American consumers notice at the pump. Beijing’s pur-chase of U.S. Treasury bonds that finance the Bush budget deficits, American campaign season pressures on Beijing to appreciate the renminbi against the dollar, and Lenovo’s purchase of IBM’s personal computer division underscore China’s enormous trade surplus with the United States, now the largest of any American trade partner, including Japan. China’s leading place in heavy industries like steel and shipbuilding reflects the dramatic advances that China’s economy has made in the past two decades. The ubiquity of Chinese products serving lower income consumers at Walmart and of Chinese-made clothing in high-end department stores underscores how much China’s low labor costs are making it the manufacturing hub of the world, contributing to the hollowing out of the traditional American manufacturing base.

These trends are important. They signal China’s arrival as a major player in the international economy, and they underscore China’s rise over the past 25 years as a competitor for world markets and resources. But they do not lead inexorably to the conclusion that China is an emergent economic superpower.

For one thing, the size of China’s GDP makes it a member in the cast of industrialized economies but it is still a long way from economic superpower stature. In 2003, China’s GDP by exchange rate measures totaled US$ 1.159 trillion and ranked sixth in the world, behind the France ($1.310 trillion), Britain ($1.424 billion), Germany ($1.846 billion), Japan ($4.141 billion), and the United States ($10,065 billion).1 China passed Italy ($1.088 billion) only the year before. The rank of China’s GDP places much higher third or even second using purchasing power parity calculations. But, in the absence of precise empirical surveys, these figures are controversial and probably exaggerate China’s GDP more than exchange rate calculations undervalue it, especially for comparisons in the international economy.

For another thing, China has indeed become an important trading nation, but it still ranks well behind other major economies. In 2003, China ranked ninth, supplying 3.5 percent of the world’s exports. It may soon overtake Canada and Italy as the next largest exporter (3.75 and 3.9 percent respectively). But it has some way to go before it rivals France (5.2 percent), Japan (6.3 percent), Britain (6.7 percent), and Germany (8.8 percent). By comparison, the United States in 2003 accounted for 14.7 percent of the world’s export volume, and the European Union together accounted for 16.8 percent. While Chinese acquisition of foreign assets has attracted attention recently, its overall foreign investment is negligible in comparison with other major economies. Although Shanghai has made great strides to recoup its pre-revolutionary international importance, China is nowhere close to becoming a world financial center, nor is the renminbi, which in recent years has become convertible on current account but is still not on capital account, likely to establish itself as the standard of foreign exchange anytime soon.

China’s economic successes are impressive enough and deserve attention. They reflect China’s late entry into the international economy China was effectively shut out of interactions in the international economy until 1971 and the revision of its development policies and the role of the international economy in them begun by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Over the two decades after 1978, China’s economic growth rates approached 10 percent annually.

But China’s rise further depends critically on the continuation of such growth rates, and there are reasons to wonder how long the spectacular rates of the past 25 years can continue. The high proportion of China’s economy occupied by its exports makes it sensitive to the ups and downs of the international economy generally and to the engine of American consumption in particular. China lacks a genuine central bank and national banking system, and the accelerating growth of its energy demand places uncertainties on long-term economic growth. Meanwhile, China’s population is graying, and as the bulge of people born during Mao’s heyday ages, they place heavy burdens on the smaller subsequent generations of Chinese born in the 1980s and after. In some measure, China’s current wave of industrialization replicates the industrial cycle pioneered by the United States, then followed by Japan, and then by South Korea and Taiwan as they shifted away from heavy industry toward lighter, more efficient and environmentally less intrusive industries and services in earlier decades. And China faces competition from other rising centers, including India.

China's Military Power

Since 1985, China has pursued a concerted program of military modernization that has attracted attention and, since the mid-1990s, generated controversy. Since 1989, defense allocations in China’s public state budget have risen at double-digit rates. China is developing a new generation of strategic and tactical missiles, some of which are deployed on the Chinese coast facing Taiwan. China is building a much more capable navy and has bought advanced aircraft from Russia.

But these military modernization efforts are best understood as an effort targeted at the needs of specific conflict scenarios in China’s immediate periphery. They do not appear to reflect an effort to acquire the strategic and power projection capacities of a superpower.

Specifically, China’s military moderniza-tion programs appear focused on several priorities:

  • Acquiring “green-water” (close to shore) naval and air support capacities to defend China’s coastal provinces, now the geographical backbone of China’s industrial economy.
  • Establishing credible military capacities to win conflicts quickly and decisively on China’s long land borders in Asia, where the PRC still has several unresolved boundary disputes.
  • Maintaining credible capacities to defend China in what is arguably the most heavily militarized region of the world. (In China’s immediate neighborhood are several potential rival centers of power Japan, Russia, India, and the ASEAN bloc, together with an engaged United States and 5 of 7 declared nuclear states, together with South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, all of which could rapidly develop nuclear weapons, and the DPRK, which may already have them.)
  • Developing credible military power to compel resolution of the Taiwan question either politically or by outright military force, even in the event of American intervention on Taipei’s behalf, and of PRC claims in the South China Sea (the Spratlys) on terms acceptable to Beijing.
  • Preserving the credibility of China’s second-strike deterrent against a strategic first strike.

Most of China’s military modernization programs are intelligible as addressed at these priorities. To meet its aims with respect to Taiwan, for example, Beijing is seeking to develop enhanced submarine capacities to blockade the island, buying advanced Su-27 fighters from Russia to establish control of the skies over the Taiwan Strait, and exploring asymmetric information warfare capacities to paralyze Taipei’s capabilities to resist. Beijing has bought Russian Sovremenniy destroyers primarily because they carry the SSN-22 Sunburn a supersonic, low-altitude anti-ship missile designed to attack aircraft carriers, the instrument of choice should the United States choose to intervene in a Strait conflict.

What Beijing does not appear to be doing is acquiring the elements of global power projection characteristic of a superpower. China’s navy over the last two decades has increasingly shown its flag in foreign ports around the world. But there is as yet no decision to build aircraft carriers, the premier contemporary mode of naval power projection (the U.S. Navy has twelve). Nor is there a clear effort to build a strategic force of the scale or of the triad arrangement of American or formerly Soviet forces. China has no long-range bomber force, and, despite occasional rumors of Chinese interest in buying the Russian Backfire bomber, it is not at all clear that Moscow would accede to such a sale. China has demonstrated a capacity since the early 1980s to deploy a ballistic missile submarine and to fire a missile from it. But China’s single such submarine reportedly has serious seaworthiness problems and has not left port since 1988. China’s new Type 094 may soon become operational, equipped with a new missile—the Julang 2, a sea-based variant of its new generation Dongfeng 31, itself still awaiting operational status because of repeated test failures.

Its land-based missile force meanwhile is ageing and increasingly vulnerable to a first-strike, especially with the advent, however notional at this point, of American missile defense. China’s existing ICBM force was deployed in the early 1980s and remains small at roughly 25 missiles. Its missiles are liquid-fueled, which means that they cannot be deployed with “launch-on-warning” readiness. They are single warhead launchers and are based in modes vulnerable to first-strike attack. As presently constituted, a single Ohio-class American ballistic missile submarine with its full complement of 24 MIRVed Trident D-5 or C-4 missiles carries the equivalent of the entire deliverable PRC strategic arsenal; the U.S. Navy has 18 such submarines.

The new generation of land-based ICBMs the Dongfeng 31 and long-ranged Dongfeng 41—have been in development for three decades and counting. They will be solid-fueled, MIRVed (thus the interest in the W88 warhead purportedly purloined from the United States), and probably based on mobile launchers. These characteristics are for certain aimed at enhancing the survivability of China’s nuclear deterrent. These long range missiles may be deployed in somewhat greater numbers to counter American national ballistic missile defense and its potential to negate China’s nuclear deterrent. Beyond that, Beijing has given no evidence that it amies to establish the kind of massive strategic force of thousands of deliverable warheads possessed for decades by the United States and, still, by Russia.

China’s military modernization has made significant strides, but it remains handicapped by China’s weak defense industrial base, a reality underscored by Beijing’s readiness to buy weapons from foreign suppliers. After two decades of concerted efforts, China’s military modernization has so far created what the U.S. Secretary of Defense’s annual report to Congress calls “pockets of excellence” within a larger picture of obsolescence.

From this perspective, Chinese military developments deserve vigilance in the broader context of ongoing military modernization efforts throughout Asia, but not alarm. For China to change the balance of military power in Asia decisively, a number of things must happen. First, China’s dramatic economic growth must continue indefinitely, a prospect about which there are grounds for skepticism. Second, China’s neighbors must stand still in their own defense modernization efforts, which so far has not been true. Third, Russia must continue to be willing to sell advanced weapons systems and military technology to China; sooner or later, however, one might expect Moscow to reconsider how much farther it can aid the advance of China’s military capacities without jeopardizing Russia’s own security interests. Finally, the United States would need to draw down from its security commitments in the region, a development that does not appear likely.

China's Political and Soft Power

Undeniably, China’s political influence has grown over the past 3 decades. In part, this rise in political influence simply reflects the reversal in its position in the international order. For the first two decades of its existence, the PRC was an outsider, shut out of the international political and economic community by effective American containment policies of embargo and ostracism. Upon entry into the United Nations in 1971, Beijing at last acquired legitimate standing in the international community and could begin to use the instruments of conventional diplomacy and access to the international economy to pursue its national interests abroad. China’s international prestige and political influence grew as Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1980s transformed China’s economy and its relationship to the world. But it suffered dramatically as a consequence of the brutal suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations and of the revolutions in Eastern Europe in the same year, and of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, making the PRC appear a reactionary political fossil in the perceived tide of democratization elsewhere. Since then, it has worked to translate its continued economic success into political influence and to overcome international perceptions of it as an atrocious abuser of human rights.

The PRC’s seat as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council is perhaps its asset of greatest leverage in international politics. But since taking up its seat in 1971, China has used it to mediate and balance, not to disrupt, unseat, or displace American leadership and ini-tiatives in interna-tional affairs. During the 1990-91 Gulf crisis, for example, Beijing voted in favor of all UN resolutions sanctioning Iraq and calling for its withdrawal from Kuwait except the two resolutions authorizing the use of military force. While voicing its reser-vations about those resolutions, however, Beijing did not veto them (which would have stymied the Bush Admin-istration’s effort to organize an international coalition under UN banners), and merely abstained. Similarly, in the diplomatic maneuvering preceding the 2003 Iraq War, Beijing played up French, German, and Russian opposition to resolutions explicitly authorizing an American-led use of force against Baghdad and attempted to broker their opposition with the Americans and the British. But it was also clear that Beijing was unlikely to go it alone in vetoing such a resolution had Paris, Berlin, and Moscow folded.

More broadly, Beijing has preached the gospel of “multipolarity” in international politics and sought to promote “strategic partnerships with other centers of power to balance against American hegemony. But these efforts have been largely unsuccessful, frequently because Beijing’s potential partners, like China itself, depend on cooperative relationships with the United States as much as they chafe at American dominance in the international system. A case in point was the joint declaration signed by then Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2001 insisting on the sanctity of the 1968 ABM treaty. When the Bush regime disavowed the treaty in 2002, neither Moscow nor Beijing responded with much more than mild criticism, underscoring the limits of their strategic collaboration against the United States.

In other respects, Beijing’s political influence and soft power abroad is comparably limited. No other country seeks to emulate China’s political model. Instead, Beijing accomondate itself with each passing leadership generation to the discourse of democracy associated with the West and the United States while striving to sustain the Chinese Communist Party itself a vastly transformed political party in power. China rightly complains that Washington and other Western capitals do not appreciate the progress China has made on human rights issues over the past two decades, Tiananmen notwithstanding. And, with some justification, it points out that American concern about human rights in China was virtually absent during Mao’s heyday, when human rights abuse was at its height in China, and in the 1970s and 1980s, when China served important American strategic interests in collaborating against the USSR. Since the end of the Cold War, China has had some political success in collaborating with other Asian countries that bristle at what they regard as overweening American preachiness and hypocrisy. But Beijing has yet to dissolve the cloud of skepticism and opprobrium that shadows it on this issue in international politics.

China’s culture has long fascinated the West, and China today has become a major tourist attraction. Tokens of this fascination abound in the United States. I am reminded of this when I see my son, now a Seattle resident and long a consumer of “alternative” counter-culture, who has a tattoo of the Chinese word heping (“peace”). More and more American students are studying Chinese rather than French as their second language of choice and are taking time out for study in China itself, a decision that undoubtedly reflects growing perceptions of China as a land of opportunity. But the numbers of American students studying Chinese as laudable as they are—nowhere rival the numbers of Chinese students who study English as the prevailing language of international affairs or who come to the United States and other Western countries. Nor is Chinese likely to displace English as the language of international politics anytime soon.


By all of these measures, China is not now a superpower, nor is it likely to emerge as one soon. It is establishing itself as a great power, on par with Great Britain, Russia, Japan, and, perhaps, India. China is today a serious player in the regional politics of Asia, but also is just one of several. At a broader level, in global affairs, its stature and power are growing, but in most respects it remains a regional power, complementing the cast of other great powers under the overarching dominance, however momentary, of the United States.

China’s rise over the past two decades has been spectacular from any perspective and deserves attention and respect, especially in view of the difficult course of China’s attempt to adapt to the modern world since the nineteenth century. From the perspective of realist geopolitics, however, it does not merit the alarm and trepidation that the announcement of an arriving superpower might conjure. Napoleon, in that regard, may be right, but not yet and not soon.


1 The Economist, Pocket World in Figures (London: Profile Books, 2004), 24.