Will China become the next superpower?

In my opinion there is currently one major superpower in the world: the United States of America. They acquired their superpower status over the course of the last 100 years. The reason why they became the superpower was because after World War 2, Europe and large parts of Asia were in ruins. The U.S. had the technology and the opportunity to expand rapidly into a great power. 1

Although some might say that in the 21st century there is no more room for a Hegemonic power due to globalization and increasing interdependence of nations, I belief that the United States is still able to pull back behind its borders ‘if’ it needs to. It will slow the economy, but they will still be able to sustain themselves. When I was searching for figures that showed U.S. dependency on the rest of the world, the most important good they are depending on is crude oil. However they managed to reduce their dependency on oil from other countries to just 40%. 2

This blog will however not focus on the United States being a superpower or not, but on the idea that China might become one as well with the possibility of overtaking the U.S.A. as the Hegemonic power.

With the following definition provided by the dictionary I’d like to indicate how a superpower is roughly defined: 

An extremely powerful nation, especially one capable of influencing international events and the actsand policies of less powerful nations. 3

This definition gives up until some extent a view on what a superpower should look like. In order to make the picture more clearly I will categorize the definition a bit more.

Joseph Nye differentiates two types of power. Soft power is the power of nations to make other nations wanting the same outcome as the nation which applies the soft power. Hard power is the power that forces other nations to do what you want even tough that this might interfere with their strategies or preferences.

Based on these two forms of power I will deviate the U.S. and China to see what China’s shortcomings are in becoming a superpower. First of the table below will show some important figures on the economies of both nations.

  United States China
GDP (purchasing power parity) $16.72 trillion (2013) $13.37 trillion (2013)
GDP growth 1.6% 7.6%
GDP per capita $ 52.800 $9.800
Inflation 1.5% 2.6%
Labor force 155 million 797.6 million
Debt 15.68 trillion (dec 2012) 784.8 billion (2012)

As the table shows it is obvious that the United States still has a higher GDP and their citizens have more money to spend. This comes however at a price. The immense debt the U.S. has to fuel its economy and governmental expenses is what causes a lot of analysts’ worries for the future. China is expected to overtake the U.S. in the coming years in terms of GDP. The reason China is growing very rapidly is because of government actions to sustain the massive growth. Examples of the actions are capital investments in better technologies in order to increase the output, but also deregulation of the strictly controlled economic engine helped improved the growth rate.

  United States China
Annual Defense Budget $ 612.500.000.000 $$132 billion expected)
GFP rank 1 3
Active Military personnel 1.430.000 2.285.000
Active Military Reserves 850.880 2.300.000
Total aircraft strength 13.683 2788
Serviceable Airports 13.513 507
Ship strength 473 520
Total ports 24 15

When we look at military strength, the U.S. outranks China on almost all aspects. They have in general more equipment and their annual budget is daunting. Although China has more personnel, the GFP (General Firepower index) looks at more than size. Russia is even outperforming China in terms of military power, but that might be changing since China announced a relatively large increase in military budget this year of 12.2% raising the budget to around $132 billion.

Chinese PLAN submarines on patrol. The Chinese are increasing their fleet of submarines, but at a price. United States analysts reported that the Chinese submarines make a lot of noise making them easier to track.

Chinese PLAN submarines on patrol. The Chinese are increasing their fleet of submarines, but at a price. United States analysts reported that the Chinese submarines make a lot of noise making them easier to track.

Soft power is the result of being liked, respected, trusted, or admired. It’s a kind of magnetism: countries are attractive when they have it, and repellent when they don’t. 4

When looking at the soft power both nations possess power to get other nations to back their cause, because they feel the cause is just. But looking at the table below it can be concluded that China is not closing in.

 Based on these figures it can be concluded that China is not even close in overpowering the U.S. in soft power. The reasons for that are simple. China fails to attract Western countries because of their ideologically driven news and other censored media by the Chinese government in order to prevent disgrace brought upon China. Efforts to promote Chinese culture overseas are often viewed upon as propaganda and work counterproductive as a result of that. Also the fact that China still uses a lot of top-down control making it harder to create a soft power that attracts westerners.

Table showing four categories of soft power in which the United States is outclassing the competition

Table showing four categories of soft power in which the United States is outclassing the competition

China has been able to grow economically very fast and they might eventually overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economic power. Militarily China has a long way to go before overtaking the United States on that level which is also were analysts have their question marks, because China must be willing to spend the same astronomical amounts of money on defense in order to be able to even force the United States to its will. Finally they will have to open up more to the outside world in order to augment their soft power and being able to get more western powers to back up their cause. Until this happens it is likely that the United States will remain the only hegemonic power.


  1. http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/w/white-century.html
  2. http://www.eia.gov/energy_in_brief/article/foreign_oil_dependence.cfm
  3. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/superpower
  4. http://thediplomat.com/2013/06/soft-power-china-has-plenty/
  1. In my opinion it is also very important to compare numbers of previous years in a case like this. If I’m not mistaken, the growth rate of China is indeed very high, but declining.http://m.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21071546 this may be an article from last year but it shows my point. Another important point is that China has to import most of it’s mineral resources and it’s getting less interesting to have products made in China because of the rising salaries and transportation costs. This means that in the future products will likely be made in countries closer to Europe and the USA. I agree on your points concerning the state of the American economy. With the exception of it being able to be self sustainable, isolation policy was they’re strategy at the start of previous century and they needed a war to get out of the great depression.

    • Thank you for your reply on the blog. To react on your first part, I think indeed that adding numbers from previous years can give a better image, however what is difficult about the figures on the Chinese economy is that economic analysts have their doubts on whether these numbers are actually valid. China is known for publishing its GDP and GDP growth very fast after their book year is done and never adapt the initial number afterwards giving reason to doubt the actual validity. Furthermore, your comment on the U.S. being able to sustain itself is interesting. I based my statement on the availability of resources within the U.S. borders. The depression in the beginning of previous century was mainly caused by too high consumer optimism which in turn caused a high credit bubble that eventually burst. the isolation policy certainly did not help the great depression I agree, but was not the main culprit in this case.

  2. the reason why their economic growth is declining is because they are reaching the level of a developed country – an indicator is that, as you already acknowledged salaries are rising until the point where its not profitable anymore to make things like plastic shuffles or t-shirts there. and if I was China I’d be vely happy about that. That cheap consumer products will not be produced there but might be produced in our domestic countries will only lead to increased prices for consumer goods. you can actually expect that Walmart will not be able to float th US with cheap Chinese stuff in 10 to 15 years anymore.

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