The PolicyMic debate over China’s status as a “superpower” — attributed to the country’s rampant economic growth and growing military strength — is heating up, with arguments both for and against the lofty title. Both sides emphasize a core question: Will China step onto the world stage on par with America? I think this question is irrelevant, as it glosses over the negative issues concerning China. Suppressing human rights domestically and creating global tension through its abrasive foreign policy, China is a problematic actor that threatens to cause serious international instability.
A majority of China’s 1.3 billion people are politically disenfranchised. One party rule, an extensive secret police apparatus, and an ever-present and vicious military machine similar to the one which crushed dissent in Tiananmen Square are all testaments to a country that has an iron grip on its populace.
Some commentators are quick to point to the changes sweeping China, such as the rise of a metropolitan middle-class and how the internet provides a social “safety valve” for China’s bubbling domestic unrest. Yet none of this has decreased the over-bearing control of the Chinese state. In the wake of the Arab Spring, for example, Beijing demonstrated an un-wavering commitment to suppressing dissent, be it artistic, political, or otherwise.
Under such conditions, does it matter if China is a “superpower” or not? The country's 1.3 billion person population (comprising a sixth of the world) is still living without the rights to freedom of speech, to choose their own lifestyle, and to freedom of religion. This is clearly undesirable for basic humanitarian and intellectual reasons.
Although China’s reach is notably limited to regional concerns, its foreign policies are equally problematic. Beijing provides unwavering political, economic, and military support for the authoritarian elites of Myanmar and North Korea, countries that abuse their citizens. By keeping these states under the umbrella of Chinese protection, an additional 73 million people can be added to Beijing’s wretched list of disenfranchised populations.
Militarily, whilst China does have a general stance of non-intervention, its behavior is still problematic. On the one hand there is some hostility; in the form of saber rattling against Taiwan or serious regional tensions over disputed island chains with Japan. Yet China is also willing to facilitate Iran's and North Korea’s trading of nuclear material, contributing to the aggressive posturing of these two states against their regional neighborhoods. In short, whether in opposition or support, China has a firm control on numerous regional military tensions.
So deciding whether or not China will threaten U.S. “hegemony” or match America militarily is irrelevant. The sheer scale and scope of China’s obstinate behavior — both at home and abroad — make it an international trouble-maker that will inevitably affect global politics and endanger world peace.
Deciding how the U.S., the EU, and their allies will deal with the world’s largest authoritarian regime will be the biggest international policy dilemma of the coming century. This is a challenge that will require creative thinking and diplomacy, as the presence of nuclear weapons will likely preclude outright warfare. The prospects of a “Cold War” between Chinese-backed interests and our own are not entirely remote. So, China does not need to be a “superpower” to be a grave concern to us all.