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The race between China and the US is one that has been the centre of debate for a good part of the last decade, and has been a focal point in the last two US elections, with former President Trump entering into a trade war with his opposite number across the Pacific. Despite recent claims, the rise of China is not new, and in fact this most recent rise, after the Great Financial Crash of 2008, is more of a resurgence than anything.
Despite China’s growing global influence, some international relations theorists argue that this resurgence of Chinese influence is not a sign of the communist nation becoming a superpower comparable to the likes of the United States, but instead that it has decided to focus on the Indo-Pacific region. This article examines China and the United States through the lens of three key areas that fundamentally characterise a superpower; Military Capability, Economic and Diplomatic Capability and Technological Capability.
There is a key military concept that allows the United States fundamentally to maintain its position as a military super power: “Command of the Sea, Command of Space, Command of the Air and infrastructure of command.” Currently, China lacks all four. However, this is not an oversight on China’s part, but a conscious decision.
The 1970s saw Deng Xiaoping introduce the “four modernisations of China” which consisted of development across most sectors of China, with military development being saved for last. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have witnessed China’s military expenditures grow exponentially, juxtaposed with the United States’ decline in recent years. Despite this, “The overall gap in the military realm remains unprecedented in modern international relations”.
The lack of military spending displays how far China is behind in becoming a superpower. However, no matter how much capital one throws at a product, it still needs to function. The average turnaround in the western world for new military equipment, from research and development to the final product, is twenty years. In China the quality of their military equipment is low and out of date compared with the US and most other western nations. China is only now capable of building nuclear attack submarines comparable to ones the US built in the 1950s. Further, Chinese-built fighter jets, such as the J-20, have engines which often cannot take off with a full tank of fuel or with a full weapons payload from their aircraft carrier, built only in 2013.
With an ever-diversified marketplace, it is now harder to convert economic wealth into military might. Countries are no longer building from scratch but are competing to catch up with leading nations. The US military budget outweighs any other US budget for education, welfare and so on. Further, the US allocates more of their economic revenue toward their military budget than any other NATO member. The US has dramatically increased its military budget since the Second World War, whilst China has only begun to do so since the turn of the twenty-first century. In addition, the US thousands of bases across the world, whereas China has only one.
It is clear that China’s military capabilities are not comparable to military might of the United States; China cannot compete with, let alone replace, the USA as a superpower, in the way that the Soviet Union had been able to counter the US in the past. Certainly, in the military realm, the re-emergence of a bipolar international system is highly unlikely. From inefficient, liquid fuel powered Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles, to a small green water navy, China’s ability to counter the strength of the United States is limited. This supports the claims of Xi Jinping, who asserts that China “lacks the gene” to seek hegemony and who also noted that there is “a growing trend toward a multi-polar world”.
Fundamentally, China, seeks to control the South China Sea, and the whole Indo-Pacific region if possible, by militarising the region. This would serve China, not as a possible superpower, but rather as a militaristic, economic and technological regional power to effectively offset any potential US involvement in the area.
Economic and Diplomatic Capabilities
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the way in which economists measure a state’s economic output. It is often the case that the larger the GDP, the better off the country is. However, as International Relations theorists point out, GDP is merely a measure of economic output, and when the international system is dominated by globalism - GDP tends to become less important.
This is especially the case in China, where the majority of their GDP is derived from private multinational companies, resulting in skewed figures. Since the GFC, China’s GDP has been increasing steadily, catching up to the United States, from 4.5 percent in 2000 to 11.3 percent in 2014 . Despite the many internal struggles of Chinese society, the country cannot avoid the “middle income trap” that affects most western states. It is only a matter of time before the Chinese economy slows. What GDP fails to account for is the power gap between both the US and China. If we take shareholders of global firms and institutions, US shareholders retain a large percentage of the world’s leading firms. Further to this, over forty percent of world household assets are held by Americans which demonstrates the sheer global power that the US has.
China’s lack of environmental protection has lead to an overestimation of their economic growth, which subsequently will affect their ability to invest in military or technological advancements. A number of organisations analysed what percentage of the GDP should be allocated to the environment, and how it would affect the rate of economic growth. In 2004, the Chinese Communist Party proposed a conservative estimate that economic growth would be adversely affected by only three percent because of environmental factors, which in turn would result in the net growth declining from ten percent to seven percent. However, other reports suggest that this was an overestimation, and that a ten percent decline in growth was more likely, thus eliminating all economic growth. Further, the World Bank suggested that the environmental question would affect the GDP by closer to twelve percent, resulting in an economic contraction. This highlights the possibility for China's GDP to decline in years to come.
On the other hand, China’s economy is only starting to take off. The Belt Road Initiative has invested four hundred billion dollars in countries since its incarnation in 2013 through cooperation agreements with dozens of countries. Although there are economic benefits to this, Chinese officials have also successfully attached diplomatic clauses to such agreements that further give them control in the Indo-Pacific region. This is known as the A2/AD doctrine or “Anti Access/Area Denial”, which fundamentally signs countries up to deny the existence of states such as Taiwan. This policy, though it does not put China on the same playing field as the US, does give the country enormous clout.
Technological capabilities help influence both military might and economic wealth. There is a perception that China has the upper hand in this sector and some theorists are willing to believe this claim, suggesting that “China is trying to shape the rules governing … new technology in ways that favour its own companies, legitimizing its use for domestic surveillance and weakening the voice of civil society groups that inform debate about it in Europe and North America” This form of surveillance is potentially detrimental to western ideals.
Further, China’s expenditure on research and development has increased rapidly, from just twenty-five billion dollars in 2000 to over two hundred billion in 2011. Juxtaposed with the exponential leap in China, the US’s investment in R&D has grown from two hundred and sixty billion to just four hundred and twenty-five billion. However, some argue that “China’s technological capacity must not be measured using high-technology exports” as it is foreign multi national corporations that actually drive these large exports, and thus it is the United Sates which leads technological innovation, and that China is merely an importer of said technologies.
Despite China trying to shape the rules of their technological capabilities, in terms of output, the United States has more technological capabilities readily available to them. As a result, this further allows the United States’ economic and military capabilities to further grow thus becoming more advanced, and thus widening the overall gap between the United States and China. By widening the gap between the two nations, it further proves that China is not yet equipped to become a superpower, and certainly not one that will be able to rival the United States soon.
Given its history, China’s resurgence was inevitable. Ten of thirteen Chinese dynasties are older than the United States and China was the world's most technologically advanced state prior to 1500. However, it is a long way away from becoming a superpower. China’s leaders have failed to “articulate a vision” to become a global superpower that is beneficial for anyone other than China, whereas on the other hand the United States has always expressed an interest in preserving democracy and western ideals and thus gives it some credence to become a superpower . However, in order to maintain this mantra, the US must be prepared to continue this legacy. Because China may not have the ability to become a superpower anytime soon does not mean it cannot have some global influence, most notably in the South China Sea.
The US needs to reconsider its grand strategy so as to remain the dominant power. Nonetheless, claims that China will soon displace the United States are false. Although China is growing at a faster pace than the US, it still has a long way to go before it can consider itself a superpower. Additionally, it has become more difficult for nations to turn their economic wealth into military might due to the longstanding size and strength of competitors like the United States. Fundamentally, China has a long road ahead before it can be dubbed a superpower and, for now, the only nation with the capabilities to meet the criteria of a superpower is the United States.