Can China Be a Superpower?

The term ‘superpower’ found its footing in the zeitgeist of the post-modern world, one that could easily be dismissed off as just another repercussion of World War II. The official dictionary definition of ‘superpower’ is of an extremely powerful nation – one of a very few dominant states in an era when the world is divided politically into the states and their satellites. To paraphrase, a superpower is a dominant administrative authority which holds the discretion to exert its influence in the political, economic, financial and military sectors in world affairs. In the war ridden latter half of the twentieth century, this term was exclusively reserved to refer to the two most powerful global forces at the time, the United States and the Soviet Union, collectively known by the cognomen, the Power Blocs. But as fate and time would have it, the Soviet Union would gradually disintegrate, propitious; some would argue, at the turn of the millennium and thenceforth, for the three decades that commenced until now, the United States found its niche as the sole ubiquitous superpower in the international sphere.
Now, years after the aforementioned term was coined and was officially recognised and adopted by lexicographers worldwide, ‘superpower’ has become a part of the quotidian vocabulary of political rhetoric. But this time around, the word cannot be deemed exclusive and solely to the United States. Scholars worldwide have exalted manifold countries up to the superpower status – India, Brazil and the European Union to spotlight a few – making the term and its semantic sense more ambiguous than it every used to be. The resuscitation of the Russian Federation to this status is a severely contentious issue as its reprisal could be synonymous with the recrudescence of a communist world, as opposed to the capitalist macrocosm it is right now. But perhaps, the most prominent and plausible consensus of a potential superpower, that all political trustees could reach a covenant on, is the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

China, with its leviathan military contingent, colossal economy, large reserve of natural resources and with the highest population in the world at its ‘service’, indubitably checks out all the boxes as a stalwart contender for the title of a future superpower to such an extent which leads experts to reach a supposition of a future where both the United States on the west and China on the east will become mutually exclusive; a circumstance where the existence of either of the parties would directly cancel out the sustenance of the other. This poses the question, is China following the path set by its predecessor ally and turn out to be a protege of the Soviet Union, or will it carve out a mould of its own on what defines a superpower? This conundrum is not extraneous or facetious, as the ideological canon by which China develops itself can be consequential portent as to a prescient conflict which can by itself herald a second and severely more deleterious Cold War. It is worth bearing in mind that the example or precedent modelled by the Soviet Union is merely an oversimplified generalisation of what a communist or subsidiary superpower should act like; a sheer stereotype that fails to account for the distinctions and the discrepancies of China and Russia as a communist power. China is an amalgam of diversities; both culturally and politically, the consistency and steadiness of the latter leading the world to believe that it won’t act as a mere scion of the ephemeral Soviet Union, but will achieve what the Soviet Union sought out to and failed.

After a comprehensive and thorough appraisal on the annals of history of China, one might reach the conclusion that China holds to itself a fascinating history rife with discoveries and triumphs, as well as advancement and progressiveness unique to itself, secluded from the outer world. This case, however, if far different from the behemoth China has turned out to be in modern records. It would be mendacious to consider China as merely a dormant local power with no active role in international politics. As China’s growing influence in the world, let alone the Asiatic front, witnesses exponential growth, China has made sure that its internal political predicaments does not prove to be an encumbrance in the global sphere. From times immemorial, China has viewed itself as a rightful representative of eastern culture as a whole, and although not impervious to the hegemony of the outer world, China has developed an inherent aversion and resistance to western interference in its own ethos. It is remarkably noteworthy, how China has concurrently managed to achieve a healthy and professional relationship with the western world for matters concerning its own benefit, such as that of international trade, but simultaneously dodged any threat to its sovereignty by external influence.

There have been various preponderant misconceptions about how China, a fairly politically and economically quiescent nation, transformed to its extant stature. China has historically had a circumspect approach to opening up its borders to other territories. With that being said, a self-sufficient economy stemmed from communism was perhaps the best expedient of the options the post-colonial country was proffered. With the inception of the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong, a protracted period of isolationism ensued all through the country, as an attempt to revitalise the core of the nation; a return to its primordial form. This attempt proved pragmatic at the time, as China successfully enabled itself to be a self-dependent economy, in all sectors from agriculture to infrastructure. Nevertheless, this situation did invite brash vitriol from political critics, who opined China’s role was an imperative for a global world and in spite of sculpting an independent resource repository, it was still languishing twenty to thirty years behind modern developmental standards, when placed in dichotomy to other nations of its caliber.

Thenceforth, following the end of Mao’s reign, Den Xiaoping accelerated a series of reformations that eviscerated the crux of isolated China and gave birth to an incipient modern China. The country segued from the sequestered republic to the global tyrant we know today. Den facilitated international trade and flow of foreign investment, which served conducive for the previously stagnant economy to find its niche in the global market. The sheer profundity of the fact that after the reformations commenced, China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) quadrupled in a matter of fifteen years is emblematic to the cataclysmic growth the Chinese experienced. Following Den’s remarkable reforms, poverty was assuaged, per capita income escalated, industry was superimposed over agricultural sector, urbanisation expanded and so did the power of cities and the economy was now upended as exports took predominance. The example set by the reformations period in China bespeaks organisation and strategic planning, so that history wouldn’t repeat itself with another shock therapy situation that had befallen the Soviet Union. Despite the phenomenal relevance it has a gained in development, the grass isn’t always green on the other side, as matters of income inequality, urban unemployment and corruption, perhaps the most prominent, has become strikingly conspicuous from a closer examination as to how the Chinese system functions.

Apropos to the internal progression China has experienced following the abrogation of its conservative political ideologies such as that of self-exclusion and isolationism, China has managed to dovetail this development by taking up responsibilities as a global player for leverage in the international sphere. This has been achieved by expanding its reach for activities ranging from diplomacy and maintenance of cohesive relationships with foreign forces, to acts of lucrative interests like trade. With globalisation acting as a covert catalyst, Chinese influence has managed to anchor itself in most if not all corners of the world as we know it today.

With all this being said, the question presents itself to the reader – what kind of a superpower will China be, if it is going to be one? One thing that can be assorted with certitude is that China will be very different from the superpowers that the world has previously been familiar with and accustomed to. It is unlikely that China will be a kindred spirit to the dominance demonstrated by the United States (or Soviet Union in the latter half of the twentieth century), and perhaps won’t act as the eastern equivalent of the way in which the United States exerts its influence. Additionally, China is yet to act as a ubiquitous interloper in international affairs the way the United States has navigated itself. By and large, China has focused around its borders as it pertains to defense and security matters. Thus, with its highly mercurial and capricious nature, China is in no way tantamount to the United States as far as the global affairs are concerned. The caution amongst the western world about China is attributed to ideological reasons – the China is neither a democracy nor has a mechanism to guarantee certain individual rights. Such discrepancy in itself is a pernicious challenge to the ideals put forth by Americans on how a superpower should sustain itself.
From a trade and business perspective, China’s ascension to the second position in GDP can be viewed as an indirect threat to American power. However, the fact that China derives significant portion of its GDP from its exports to the United States will not unsettle Washington DC as much as some experts would anticipate. While China is forecasted to overtake United States in GDP in the next three or four decades, a lot of it depends on whether China will be able to maintain stability within its borders. History has proven time and again that any nation can’t sustain prolonged growth in economy unless it guarantees its citizens certain individual rights.

-Harishankar (Freelancer)

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