Does China want to be a superpower? In the White House, at least, there seems to be little doubt. Rush Doshi, director for China on President Joe Biden’s National Security Council, has just published a book in which he argues that Beijing pursues a “great strategy” to “displace the American order” and become the most powerful nation in the world.
Superpower status is a source of national pride and brings significant economic and political benefits. But it also involves costs, risks and burdens. Last week, nine Chinese nationals were killed in one terrorist attack in Pakistan, a country now firmly in the sphere of influence of Beijing. The call for retaliation in nationalist circles in China the American reaction resonates when terrorists have targeted American citizens.
The Chinese, like the Americans, are shocked and confused that their efforts to bring peace and development, as they see it, have been violently welcomed. It’s all a bit reminiscent of the lament of Rudyard Kipling, a poet who celebrated British imperialism but warned of “The guilt of those who are better / The hatred of those who watch.”
Becoming a superpower is a complicated business. It asks a series of related questions about skills, intentions and will. To draw a sporting analogy, you may be an extremely talented tennis player and want to truly be a world champion but still be willing to make sacrifices to turn the dream into reality.
It is in the military field that the distinction between ability, aspiration and will is most important. In recent years, China has transformed its war potential. U Chinese Navy now it has more ships than the United States. Some senior US military officials openly doubt if the United States prevailed in a battle over Taiwan.
The government of President Xi Jinping loves to show off military power parade in Beijing, and there are a lot of warriors, nationalist rhetoric on the internet and in the press. And Chinese troops engaged in a deadly skirmish with those Indians in the Himalayas last year. However, Evan Medeiros, Asian director of former President Barack Obama’s White House, argues that it is unclear whether China is willing or able to assume the burdens of being an American-style global military power.
China has not waged a war since then encounter with Vietnam in 1979 and boasts of his “peaceful ascension.” Unlike the United States, Beijing has historically been very reluctant to promise to defend its friends and allies. China has only one overseas military base Djibouti in East Africa, compared to hundreds of American military facilities overseas.
If the government or the Chinese people are reluctant to go to war, this is undoubtedly for their credit. But wars have tended to be the means by which new superpowers emerge and restore world order, from Britain in the 19th century to the Soviet Union and the United States in the 20th century.
China’s economic weight, as the world’s largest trading power and producer, gives it significant political leverage at the international level. Countries dependent on Chinese trade or investment are often reluctant to meet with Beijing – which partly explains the silenced global reaction to China’s mass internment policies in Xinjiang.
But Beijing’s economic power is not always politically decisive. Although China is the largest trading partner of Japan, South Korea and Australia, these countries have challenged Beijing on the occasion. The South Koreans have allowed the United States to launch one missile defense system on its territory; Japan has refused yields in territorial disputes; Australia infuriated Beijing is calling for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19.
The Japanese, the South Koreans and the Australians are all democracies that are careful to be drawn into the political orbit of an authoritarian, one-party state. They are also U.S. allies and have U.S. military bases on their ground – which can give them the confidence to push back against China.
China sometimes suggests that America’s security guarantees cannot be invoked. But the credibility of the U.S. alliance system will only grow if Washington fails to intervene after China attacks a U.S. ally. Fortunately, there is no real evidence that China is even ready to take this risk – even with Taiwan, which does not have an unambiguous US defense guarantee.
Instead of trying to undermine America’s global network of alliances and bases, China could try to build its alternative system. Doshi of the White House argues that China is preparing to expand its global military footprint – perhaps by adding a military component, alongside the civilian port structures it has purchased or developed around the world.
But that expansion, while plausible, has not yet happened. Even if China were to develop a naval presence in ports such as Gwadar in Pakistan or Hambantota in Sri Lanka, it seems unlikely that Beijing would offer the security guarantees that have made so many countries willing to host U.S. troops and bases. The United States is committed to defending its 29 allies in NATO and they are too offered military protection to about 30 other countries, including Japan, Australia, South Korea and much of Latin America.
If China is unwilling or incapable of achieving a global military presence that rivals that of the United States, perhaps it will have to find a new way to be a superpower – or give up ambition.