“While the United States offers a conception of universal human rights and democracy—and while the Soviet Union offered the idea of achieving global communism—China lacks a universalist narrative or imperial mission.”
articulated by Senator Mitt Romney. While this claim can be disputed, it cannot be denied that we are witnessing, as historian Niall Ferguson states, a fter a century of American predominance on the global scene, claims that China will supplant the United States and become the world’s leading superpower are becoming far more common, such as have been Cold War 2. 0 between China and the United States. Nevertheless, for many reasons, a future of Chinese global supremacy is far from certain. China is faced with numerous problems, from geopolitical barriers, to a lack of ideological appeal across borders, to problems stemming from the authoritarian, undemocratic nature of its system—not to mention ethnic divisions within the country.
Sociologist and historian Michael Mann in his seminal 1986 three-volume book The Sources of Social Power distinguishes among four sources of power: ideological, economic, military, and political. China certainly has economic power, though this can partially be explained by the fact that it is home to more than 18% of the world’s population. While China ranks second globally in GDP, its per capita GDP—according to a recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimate—is just 65th in the world (and one sixth of the GDP per capita in the United States).
As the great structural realist John Mearsheimer has argued, in order to become a superpower, a state must have undisputed supremacy over a region. As Mearsheimer put it, “Think about the Western Hemisphere, where the United States clearly enjoys hegemony. No state in that region would willingly start a war with the United States for fear of being easily and decisively defeated.” In Asia, however, China has few strong allies, with the exception of Pakistan. Japan, the nation that is home to East Asia’s second strongest economy, remains a harsh rival of China’s. And South Korea—in part, due to China’s support for North Korea—is unlikely to ever become a close ally of China’s. Furthermore, China’s southern neighbor, India, which is the world’s second most-populous nation and a country with increasingly high aspirations on the global scene, has not exactly had strong relations with China historically. There was, for instance, China’s victory over India in a brief 1962 war over a disputed part of the Himalayan region. (Also, cordial Chinese-Pakistani relations are a burden for Sino-Indian cooperation.)
All the while, other countries in the region, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are American allies—not to mention Australia, farther south. And China continues to have many territorial disputes with its neighbors—from the border with India to the Spratly Islands, which are being claimed, in part, by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. And, though, one might be inclined to argue that Russia is a powerful Chinese ally, Sino-Russia relations are forged far more as a result of their sharing a common rival: the United States. Further, there is reason to doubt if this “enemy of my enemy”-style relationship will last, given the increasingly softer American approach towards Russia in recent years. During the original Cold War, the United States had nations such as the United Kingdom, France, and West Germany on its side against the Soviet Union. In a potential Cold War 2.0, who does China have? Pakistan and North Korea.
But what if Chinese military strength in its region is so strong that China can overcome these geopolitical constraints? That argument can be easily dismissed; the Chinese military’s strength has not yet overcome that of Russia—let alone the United States. The United States, additionally, boasts a large military presence in the Chinese neighborhood. China still lags distantly behind in overseas military presence, only having bases in Cambodia, Djibouti, Tajikistan. As for military spending and weaponry, China is well behind the United States.
If China cannot become a superpower through pure force, can it do so more subtly? Unlike the exportable ideology of the United States, China’s ideology is more confined and nationalistic. As the Norwegian historian Odd Arne Westad notes in Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750, “Today’s China is nationalist, not universalist. Its nationalism is up against other nationalisms in the region that are at least as powerful in domestic ideological terms as China’s own; think only about Korea and Vietnam…No young person of sound mind in Tokyo or Seoul, or even in Taibei or Singapore, is looking to the PRC for music to download, films to watch, or ideas to latch on to.” Let alone “exporting” its ideology around the world, China is not even able to export its belief system to Taiwan or Hong Kong. As we have seen in recent months, the people of Hong Kong have shown a great willingness to defend their values against Beijing. If China cannot even bring fellow people of Han Chinese ethnicity onboard, this does not bode well for its prospects of recruiting international adherents.
While the United States offers a conception of universal human rights and democracy—and while the Soviet Union offered the idea of achieving global communism—China lacks a universalist narrative or imperial mission.
Lastly, there is the issue of how the CCP deals with ethnic minorities in China: pacifying them with force. Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang have been placed in concentration camps on a large scale, and this is partnered with an orchestrated effort for Han Chinese to colonize Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province. This demonstrates the inability for China’s one-party state to bring other groups into its fold by means other than coercion. Furthermore, the suppression of the Uyghur minority makes for an additional constraining factor for Chinese foreign policy. Uyghurs are Turkic people—like Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz people, Turkmens, and Uzbeks. As such, China’s ability to build relations in Central Asia can be reasonably inferred to be hampered by how the nation has dealt with its resident Turkic people.
For those tempted to believe that an ascendant China is a nearly forgone conclusion, they would be wise to recall the East Asian nation’s many constraints, from a lack of powerful allies, to an inability to even dominate the East Asian region (let alone the world), to the fact that its ideology is far from exportable. Add in the CCP’s current treatment of ethnic minorities, and it’s not difficult to see that China is unlikely to dominate the global scene.
Tomislav Kardum is Croatian journalist and historian. He is the author of Foreign Policy of the German Empire 1871-1890.