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Great powers

January 18, 2011

The rise of China as a superpower challenging or overtaking the US has for years been a hot topic in Washington. While many pundits have already declared Beijing a top power, experts paint a more nuanced picture.

Chinese dragon against the backdrop of the US flag
The rivalry between the US and China is likely to continueImage: dw

For a long time now, headlines in major publications and books have announced either that China de facto is already the globe's new superpower or that the country's ascent to the top slot among nations is imminent. Back in 1996, Time magazine ran a long piece called "China: Waking up to next new superpower." Two years ago, the Forbes business magazine notified its readers "Yes, China has fully arrived as a superpower" and in the past year the book "When China rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order" became a bestseller.

In the context of China's major announcement last week that its first stealth capabilities bomber was conducting test flights and against the backdrop of Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington this week, there are plenty of reasons to take a hard look at China's rapid rise and ask what it really means for Washington.

To be sure, China's potential as an economic and military power - driven by its sheer size and the dramatic pace in which the country has already transformed itself - is huge. So are American policymakers who for years have been warning and preparing for China's ascent correct? Has the US already been replaced as the world's preeminent power and if not when will it happen?

The answers to those questions depends to some extent on who you talk to and what figures you use. What seems fair to say that based on many common indicators, the US currently is still the world's dominant power.

"In my opinion the fears of China's dominance are overblown," Andrew Moravcsik, professor of international affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey told Deutsche Welle.

Don't believe the hype

He contends that China is an important rising power, but argues that it will take generations before Beijing can rival the US, but also Europe in military, economic, technological, educational matters or in terms of its global soft power influence. "I think when you look at the numbers rather than looking at the hype there is really no question that that is true."

"China won't replace the US in the coming years as the global hegemon," agrees Martin Wagener, a professor of international relations at the University of Trier. "Washington is far ahead of Beijing in all central comparative areas," he notes in a written interview with Deutsche Welle.

Even on economic terms, generally considered to be China's strongest claim to power, Moravcsik and Wagener argue that the country is still trailing the US. To undermine his claim, Wagener compared both nations' gross domestic product in 2009 according to the World Bank. While US GDP even during the economic crisis that hit the country particularly hard came in at $14.1 trillion (10.5 trillion euros, global share: 24 percent), China's amounted to $4.9 trillion (global share: 9 percent).

What's more, says Moravcsik, "an individual European country like Germany is in economic matters broadly speaking roughly as powerful as China. Its export surplus is roughly as large as China's."

Other often cited facts claiming that mainland China lacks many factors of a full economic superpower emphasize that it hasn't developed any major global brands and that it hasn't produced any Nobel prize winners in the science categories.

A Chinese J-20 stealth plane is seen after finishing a runway test in Chengdu, southwest China
China is trying to close the military gap with the USImage: AP/Kyodo News

In military affairs, the discrepancy between the US and China is even more pronounced. While China's rapid modernization of its military has been all the talk in defense circles for a while and the government is indeed devoting more and more money to that purpose, the gap between Washington and Beijing is still stark - and will probably remain so for a long time.

Military posturing

"It will take China 70 years to have the same level of military spending as the United States," argues Moravcsik. "And even that would not lead to it having the same military power as the United States, because military power is a function of how much spending you have invested over generations not just in a single year."

Arguably the best indicator of US military superiority is its lead in research and development spending over China, says Wagener. According to official figures, Beijing spent $6.6 billion for military R&D in 2008 while Washington spent $79.5 billion for Research, Development, Test & Evaluation.

And as far as the much-quoted test flight of China's first stealth capability fighter aircraft is concerned, Wagener regards this as mainly a good PR stunt. "A test flight is one thing, to possess an Initial Operation Capability (IOC) something entirely different," he says. "It is totally unclear, when the J-20 will be combat-ready and what kind of stealth capabilities it will have then." He adds that Washington's F-22 stealth fighter had its test flight in 1990, but reached IOC only in 2005.

These numbers display a sizeable quality and quantity gap in military and economic affairs between the US and China. So why is it that US officials often don't contextualize, but rather confirm media-stoked worries of an imminent Chinese challenge to US global leadership?

"China's rise provides the Pentagon with a perfect justification for demanding extra money from Congress," Nicola Casarini, a China specialist at the Paris-based EU Institute for Security Studies, told Deutsche Welle. But he adds, Beijing's rise, unlike that of Japan in the 1980s, "creates in the United States a sense of a threat meaning that China is rising outside the orbit, outside the system of alliances of the United States."

Playing catch-up

Casarini argues that while some fears over China's ascent are exaggerated, it is clear that Beijing is rising and will continue to rise and it's similarly clear that many worry about this fact. "There is no doubt that China's rise and its military might is indeed a cause of concern for the international community because it is growing and it is putting more and more energy and resources into developing weapons."

For Ulrich Menzel, professor of international relations at the Technical University of Braunschweig, fears in the US about a Chinese challenge to Washington's predominance as global power, are justified. "Of course they are," he says. "I would argue it's not fears, but realities."

While the exact timing depends on future Chinese growth rates, one can already extrapolate based on the country's economic potential when it will surpass the US, notes Menzel. That will be somewhere around 2030. "But that China will indeed catch up and also surpass the US economically that I am convinced of."

Facebook and Twitter, like most major Internet companies, are American
The US still holds a sizeable technological and soft power advantage over China

Beijing still lags far behind the US in military terms, acknowledges Menzel. But the fact that China has started to change its military stance which was predominantly focused on the defense of the country has certainly registered in Washington. China plans to launch its first aircraft carrier soon, still a Soviet model, but is developing two additional ones. It's also developing a medium-range missile capable of destroying US aircraft carriers, adds Menzel. "This presents a great threat for the United States."

But even Menzel, who is the most bullish analyst interviewed by Deutsche Welle on China's rise as a new military and economic superpower, makes some caveats when it comes to Beijing's ability to displace the US as the world's dominant power.

Being an international leader doesn't just depend on the potential of a country to take over that role, but also on the attractiveness and the willingness of others to orient themselves toward that, says Menzel. "I don't see this at all, except of course for the region immediately around China where Chinese culture is very attractive. But across the world I don't see it."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge