China's Exaggerated Rise to Superstardom

We’ve been hearing it for years: China is going to be the next great superpower – if it’s not already.  In his piece on American decline in Foreign Policy a few months ago, Gideon Rachman spent more time talking about China’s successes than he did America’s failures. The U.S. is in decline and China is poised to take its place.

But not really. If America is a paper tiger than China’s an origami swan.

China’s economy famously grows at approximately 9-10% per year, but it takes more than economic growth to make a country a legitimate superpower. You also need political and military power. Yes, China has nuclear weapons. And due to its economic growth and willingness to invest in infrastructure abroad in exchange for access to energy resources, it is also increasingly influential in Africa, South America and naturally, in its own backyard in Southeast Asia. But being a superpower also means being willing to project power – something China is reticent to do. 

China's decision to send two destroyers and a supply ship to help in the anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia was its first foray beyond the Pacific. It has yet to launch a single aircraft carrier – the lifeblood of a nation’s ability to project power far from home. The one carrier it is building was first purchased from the Ukraine in 1998. The U.S., by comparison, has 11 active carriers and more in the works. China continues to maintain a policy of non-interference in other nation’s affairs.  For all its nukes and economic influence, the fact remains that it shares a continent and sphere of influence with other nuclear armed and economically powerful nations. Russia, India, Pakistan, South Korea, and Japan will likely not sit idly by and watch as China makes moves. This only strengthens America’s strategic position as the off-shore arbiter and guarantor of regional stability. Could you imagine a nuclear arms race between China and India?

The truth is, there are more things working against China than for it. China has 1.3 billion people, and they’re growing restless. As its economy grows, so does the middle class. Their growing expectations are helping drive up the costs of food and other goods. Feeding its people and maintaining stability is the Chinese government’s main priority and each year they are forced to play down yet another scandal.

In 2008, chicken farmers were caught feeding hens melamine, an industrial chemical. Now, they are being caught feeding them barite, another industrial chemical, to help weigh the chickens down and increase their value. Don’t forget about the lead in toys or the use of melamine in powdered baby milk that left 300,000 children sick. The father of one of those sick children was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail for demanding compensation. 

The list goes on and on: Chinese dry wall, concrete, and building standards have all come under fire for being of poorer quality than advertised. A 5.4 earthquake (considered ‘moderate’ on the Richter scale) struck China the day before the one that rocked Japan, taking out 1,039 homes and severely damaging nearly 5,000 others. By taking short cuts to meet demand or increase profit, China is building on a weak foundation. 

The question is not whether the U.S. can maintain its power under increasing economic strain and competition, but whether China can sustain its growth without collapsing under its own weight. This will only be more difficult as it faces increased pressure to revaluate the Yuan and join the global economy on an equal footing. 

China is the next great superpower, and with a surging economy it's ready to push Uncle Sam out of the way. They said the same thing about Japan in the 1980s.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons