What Kind of Superpower?

China’s rise is rattling nerves, but a comparison with another emerging power shows why the country may prove to be a gentle giant.

By Charles Kenny

A monument to Mao in Changsha, Hunan Province


As nationalist war-mongering goes, the anti-Japanese demonstrations taking place across China have been relatively tame. Chinese authorities have maintained tight control over the protesters, some of whom call for an armed response against Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea: Plastic bottle-throwing is allowed, glass bottle-throwing discouraged. For all the jingoistic talk, the marches have been largely free of violence. China has far more to lose than gain by going to war. And yet the country’s conflicts with Japan and other Asian neighbors are a reminder of the potential dangers posed by China’s rise to global power.

According to Arvind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, China has already surpassed the U.S. as the world’s biggest economic power, in terms of the size of its gross domestic product. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund suggest that’s probably still a few years off, but either way, China is at least the world’s second-largest economy and its second-biggest military spender as well. Some policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere, however, fear that China is a “premature superpower” — too underdeveloped and unsteady to act in a responsible manner. According to this line of thinking, an increasingly assertive China will use its clout to support abusive regimes in its own self-interest, threaten war, pursue beggar-thy-neighbor policies, and ignore what should be global goals on issues such as the environment and public health.

There are some reasons to worry about the coming Chinese Century. The country’s domestic and international human-rights record is obscene. It’s been less than a quarter century since the government opened fire on unarmed citizens in the heart of the nation’s capital, and only 50 years since the Communist Party’s so-called Great Leap Forward killed tens of millions. Dissidents are still regularly imprisoned or disappear. China has helped block international responses to deal with the thuggish regimes of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir while propping up North Korea’s famine-ridden kleptocracy.

Despite such actions, there’s little reason to believe that China will be a destabilizing force in the world. To understand why, it’s instructive to compare the China of 2012 with a country that a century ago was also on the verge of superpower status: the United States.

By 1918 the U.S. had unquestionably become one of the world’s most powerful nations. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the U.S. occupied Cuba, the Philippines, Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, the Panama Canal Zone, and Puerto Rico, and had sent troops to fight in Mexico, Western Europe, and Russia. Its late entry into World War I was a decisive factor in the defeat of Germany. America ended the war with the highest income per head in the world. By 1929 it accounted for 20 percent of global military expenditure.

How does that compare to modern China? And what does it suggest about the potential behavior of the world’s youngest superpower? The U.S. was far more democratic at the start of its global economic dominance around 1918 than China is today. As a superpower, America has (largely) been a stabilizing force on the international scene. Even so, the relationship between a country’s levels of democracy and its proclivity for making war is tenuous — as the histories of both China and the U.S. demonstrate. The short 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war was the last international armed conflict entered into by China — and it didn’t even end with a border change. Compare that to the long list of American interventions prior to 1918; it’s hard to argue that young superpowers are any more inclined to be pacific simply because they’re democracies, or more likely to start wars if they’re not.

Today’s China is more woven into the international system than any previous superpower, including the U.S. In 1918, U.S. merchandise exports accounted for 8 percent of gross domestic product. For China in 2010, the same number was 26 percent — more than three times as high. As a sign of how completely integrated the country is in the global trading system, 50 percent of those exports were produced by foreign enterprises. And when it comes to its own investments overseas, China has more than $3 trillion in foreign reserves alone, most held in securities (and a good chunk in the U.S. and Europe).

Because of China’s enmeshment in the world economy, military spending has remained a relatively low priority for the country’s rulers. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research institute, China today accounts for only about 8 percent of the world’s military expenditure — less than half the U.S.’s level in 1929 and one-fifth of America’s share today. China is a country that appears to have no pretensions to global military dominance.

At the same time, the Chinese are at least as educated and prosperous as Americans were at a comparable stage of global influence — factors that should also help to moderate Chinese behavior in the long run. GDP per capita in China surpassed the U.S. level of 1918 sometime around 2006; today China is about as rich as America was in 1949. According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, the average American over the age of 25 had 8.2 years of education in 1920. In China, that’s the average for people over the age of 15, according to development economists Robert Barro and Jong-Wha Lee.

In some cases, the Chinese people appear to have more cosmopolitan attitudes than Americans do even today. When asked if they see themselves as world citizens, 84 percent of Chinese agree with the statement, compared with 69 percent of Americans. Asked who should decide policies about international peacekeeping, 64 percent of Chinese pick the United Nations over national governments or regional organizations, compared with 53 percent in the U.S. (The relative support for the UN switches when it comes to deciding policies towards human rights.) More than 60 percent of the Chinese population would support paying more in taxes if it were used to help protect their environment. That compares with only 50 percent in the U.S. today — let alone in 1918, decades before Rachel Carson had raised the specter of a spring without birdsong. And almost exactly the same proportion of Chinese as Americans — just over four-fifths — rate global warming as a serious problem.

It’s possible that a more appropriate superpower analogy for the China of 2012 is not the U.S. of 1918 but the former Soviet Union after World War II. That country, like China, was ruled by an undemocratic communist regime. It placed huge armies on the borders of key U.S. allies in Europe and helped topple U.S.-friendly regimes from Latin America through Africa and Asia. But in 1950 the USSR had a GDP per capita of $2,840 — about a third of current Chinese income. And all of Nikita Khrushchev’s fist-banging braggadocio to the contrary, it never became the economic equal of the U.S.

More to the point, a Soviet system whose leadership was committed to “socialism in one country” prior to world revolution was far less integrated with the world economy than China has been for years. Despite China’s lip service to a similar communist belief system, that ideology has been largely abandoned by policy practitioners, and the country has no pretensions to fomenting global revolution. Treating China like a successor to the Soviet Union — a foe of the West to be faced with massive military, diplomatic, and economic containment — would be an incredibly counter-productive and costly mistake.

And yet China’s rise will have some rocky moments. In and of itself, China’s lack of democracy doesn’t make it a threat — but it’s still something the U.S. and its allies should be vigilant about, since it could cause domestic instability or the rise of a more nationalist political class. That’s especially unsettling if you’re a citizen of a neighboring country concerned with the distribution of unoccupied islands and the mineral wealth that rests on the ocean bed close to them.

At the very least, the U.S. should continue to press China’s leaders to pursue political reform, for what it’s worth. But regardless of whether China develops into a liberal democracy in coming years, the country presents a marginal danger to world stability compared to earlier superpowers at similar stages of their rises — including America itself. If everyone keeps their heads about them, the Chinese Century can be a boon for all of us.


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