A superpower is a country with a global sphere of influence that can effectively project its strength around the world. To achieve this status, countries must have exceptionally capable militaries as well as influence through the means of soft power in international politics and a subsequent widespread cultural reach. Above all, they must have highly successful economies.
The United States is undoubtedly a superpower. It has one of the biggest economies in the world, a tremendous amount of cultural and political influence, and the most technologically advanced military in the world. The past few decades have even been called the Pax Americana in recognition of its unparalleled global domination. Nonetheless, there are signs that the global power balance will soon change. China’s meteoric rise has already begun to challenge American hegemony. I believe that it will eventually not only join the US as a superpower but surpass it.
The economic evidence for this is very compelling. China is already rivaling the US when it comes to economic strength and has even surpassed the US in terms of GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity. Furthermore, the Chinese economy’s growth rate is nearly three times the growth rate of the American economy (an average of 7% compared to an average of 2.5%). If this trend continues, China will easily become the unquestioned global economic power in the coming decades.
The recent COVID19 pandemic is also a strong example of just how much economic influence China has accumulated. In the early days of the pandemic, quarantine measures and the resulting business disruption in China had a significant impact on the entire global supply chain, with 60% of companies saying they experienced delays in receiving orders. The fact that one country can have such an outsized impact is testimony to its staggeringly broad sphere of influence in the economic realm.
It’s also worth considering the role of population size for economic prosperity in the 21st century. Labor is highly productive and hence paid fairly well, in the tertiary (services) and quaternary sectors (knowledge-based economy) which most developed countries have shifted into. These sectors would benefit from a large, highly educated workforce, which China now undeniably has. Not only is it the country with the largest population in the world (more than a billion people), it also consistently tops measures of education. A significant example of this is the PISA test, which assesses the ability of 15-year-old students in all OECD countries to read, do maths, and apply scientific knowledge. In all categories, China beat the rest of the world in 2018. In the coming century, China’s economic prosperity will only increase due to its exceptionally large and well-educated population.
However, superpower status is built on more than a strong economy. Formidable militaries and soft power are also very important, and it is in these areas that China still falls considerably short. Granted, the Chinese military is strong and has the most soldiers of any army in the world, but it is nowhere near as strong as that of the US. Right now, it is also difficult to imagine that China would ever achieve the political influence and cultural reach enjoyed by America.
However, I would argue that China’s increasing economic power will make catching up in these areas only a matter of time and political will. This is because a bigger economy leads to more tax revenue, which could then be invested in relevant areas like the military. This has already started happening. China’s official defense budget has increased by almost 700% over the last twenty years, and is now second only to the US defense budget. Furthermore, there is evidence that the official figures are misleadingly low because independent sources have consistently estimated China’s military spending to be significantly higher than government reports indicate.
There is also very strong evidence of investment in building international ties and influence. China has used its vast economic resources to provide aid to other countries. It has helped finance infrastructure projects in Africa such as the Mombasa-Nairobi railway, where it provided 90% of the funding. In recent times, China has even seen some success expanding its sphere of influence into Latin America through projects such as vaccine donations during the COVID19 pandemic. Such projects help China gain international influence by helping it make political allies, dramatically increasing its soft power. In the future, I think we will see this trend continue and we will see China’s political influence rival that of the US.
This is particularly likely as American influence over the world is currently decreasing. In recent years, there has been growing pressure in the US to withdraw from the world, or at the very least to be less involved with it. This culminated in the Trump presidency, when the US actively undermined international organizations like the International Criminal Court, actions which dramatically decreased US credibility. A Pew poll even found that Xi Jinping was trusted more than Donald Trump. Although Trump is no longer in office, the America First movement he started will probably remain a significant source of political pressure in coming elections, and the international ties he frayed may take years of effort to fully heal.
Furthermore, Trump’s successor Joe Biden has also weakened American influence across the globe. He has done this by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and by suggesting to the UN that he no longer intends to get the US involved in pointless forever wars. A reduced presence in volatile regions such as the Middle East would likely leave the influence of China (and Russia) in this region relatively uncontested. It would also signal to regional leaders that the US cannot be relied on for security and military aid, weakening the American position. Overall, an increase in isolationism and a decrease in military adventurism will probably lead to the US taking a less dominant role in international politics, potentially paving the way for a Chinese take-over.
However, it’s important to note that these processes take time. China still lags far behind the US in areas such as military spending and, despite its best efforts, political influence. In addition, there are some pre-requisites of superpower status which China is not even close to meeting. Crucially, the cultural reach of China remains painfully limited. It could be argued that this has been increasing in recent years with the rise of platforms like Tik Tok, but I think an important distinction must be made here. Tiktok hosts content from users. Hollywood, on the other hand, is able to convince viewers of the glamour of the American dream. As a result, the US can foster a sense of cultural identity among an international audience, increasing the likelihood that other countries’ policies will be favourable. China can do no such thing.
China’s time will come. It will undeniably become a global economic power in the next few years, but this will not immediately make it a superpower. The gap between China and the US in terms of military might and soft power are much too wide to be overcome by a few years of investment. The day that China will become a superpower, much less a global hegemon, could be more than a lifetime away.