Read this for a flashback twenty years ago when China’s clout was expanding

Worldwide, people talk of an American dream.
If I moved to the US, I could become “American” and my children would certainly be Americans.
 But moving to China would not make me or my children Chinese. Would it? 
Is there a China dream?

Civilizations, Empires and Superpowers

The world has seen influential civilizations -Greek, Persian, Chinese, Harappan (Indian), Roman, Islamic, Mayan, Olmec, Aztec, Inca and many more. In modern times Samuel Huntington classified civilizations geographically in his book on clash of civilizations which is as per the map below 

Similarly, there have been many great empires and powers like the Ottoman, Persian, Spanish, Hapsburgs, Arab, Mauryan, Mughal, the Tang Dynasty and more. In modern times there have been powers like Japan, Germany, France and more. However, the world has seen only five superpowers as per many opinions.  These are the Mongol and Roman empires of the ancient times. In modern times it was the British Empire, the USSR and the USA. The USA is the last surviving superpower. China is the superpower aspirant.

What is A Superpower?

What is a superpower? The term is contextually used with different meanings. When viewed holistically, superpowers possesses military, technological and economic might, which are vastly superior to that of other states. They have the capacity to project this dominating power to influence events globally and directly shape them. They might need to do so simultaneously, at times, in more than one region of the globe. The projected power and influence could be economic, military, technological or “soft” (diplomatic, political and cultural). A superpower needs capability not only to project power or influence but is able to dominate another country and ward it off when challenged. It cannot be ignored on the world stage. Without its cooperation no world problem can be solved.

The Emerging Competition

In this century, competition between USA and China will intensify. USA will strive to retain superpower status while China will strive to attain and surpass it to be the undisputed No1. Is this ambition realistic? What will it take for China to realize its ambitions? What are the threats and opportunities in its path to glory? These are questions which will trouble all of us. Answers to this question as they evolve will affect our lives; particularly in India.  In this context it is pertinent that we first ingest basics of other superpowers and then see where China stands.

Roman Empire

The Roman Empire was the first superpower.  Commencing from 27 BC, it lasted five centuries. A series of illustrious emperors/ dictators like Caesar, Augustus, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius’ and decadent ones like Nero, Caligula and Tiberius were at its helm.  Its prowess was unquestioned in the Middle East and Europe. It ruled almost all the major population centers and civilizations of the time including Greece, Egypt, the Levant, Carthage, Anatolia and Italy. Its footprint covered over 60 million people. It was a superpower due to the military dominance of its famed Roman legions. They were the foundation of the empire.  The Army was undefeatable. Persia, the only real competitor of the time, was repeatedly ravaged. Rome ultimately fell due to internal factors like civil war and economic depredations. The Roman Empire was distinguished for many intellectual accomplishments – Roman Law, City Planning, Architecture and Roads. Its roads promoted commerce, agriculture, mail delivery, pedestrian traffic, and military movements. City planning was all about hygiene with plumbing, sewage disposal, dams, and aqueducts. Roman architecture is still famed for its lavishness and planning. The period is also significant for the birth of two major religions – Christianity and Islam. One within the Roman Empire and other on its periphery.  

The Mongol Empire

The Mongol Empire was the world’s largest land empire. A striking feature was that about a million Mongols conquered empires that were many times bigger. The Empire was not unitary in the normal sense. It was a vast agglomeration of widely different territories held together by military domination. Its military prowess propelled it to Superpower status. Its all-conquering military machine was based on outstanding tactics, mobility, utilization of the technology of the conquered peoples and logistics. As each state along the Silk Road was conquered, the empire expanded.  The Silk Road was the economic backbone of the Mongols.  From 1206 till about 1294, Genghis Khan and his heirs ruled an empire that included most of Eurasia, much of the Middle East, parts of Eastern Europe, China and Russia. At its greatest extent it stretched from the Danube to the Sea of Japan (or East Sea) and from the Arctic to Camboja, covering over 22% of the Earth’s land area. It held sway over 100 million people. It is often referred to as the” Mongol World Empire”.


The British Empire

The British empire was the first modern day Superpower in which Economic, Military and Soft power were equal constituents. It was founded on colonies and trading posts established by England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates, and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom.  The soft power of its political, linguistic and cultural legacy still endures through the Commonwealth.  It was the largest empire and its foremost global power for over a century. In 1922, it controlled a population of about 458 million people (1/4th the world’s population). It covered more than 33.7 million km2 (1/4th of Earth’s land area). In its empire there was sunlight throughout at some place or the other. That is why the “sun never set” in the British Empire. It had the largest military of all times. Its military power was based on a powerful Navy with which it could strike and control strategic chokepoints—Suez, Malacca, Aden, Hormuz, Gibraltar. It enabled unfettered trade and made UK enormously wealthy. In 1870, it had the largest percentage of world GDP (35.9%).  In 1938, it still had the second largest GDP after the US. It was unassailable with the Atlantic on one side and the English Channel on the other, insulating it from continental powers. The collapse of the British Empire was heralded by the first world war and was completed by the second world war.   


USA is the continuing superpower. It has a huge population. It has an enormous, continental-sized, resource-rich territory located on two oceans.  It has been unassailable barring two brief times – Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and 9/11 strikes on Twin Towers. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it has enjoyed conventional military dominance in air, sea or land. Its Navy can control all the world’s major sea routes and choke points. It operates 516 military installations in 41 countries around the world, including 42 that are large or medium-size bases. It has extensive alliances including the NATO, Anzus Pact, bilateral military agreements with Japan and South Korea, and the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance between the USA, the UK,  Australia, Canada and New Zealand  Economically it is very strong and is home to a significant proportion of the world’s GDP. Its currency is the reserve currency of the world. Its economic power is nonfinite and non-territorial. USA is the first superpower which has used Technology in every walk of life as a currency of power. Its forays into space, nuclear and Information spaces are pioneering. Technology turned it from an energy neutral to energy surplus status. It wields enormous soft power and projects it through its culture, educational system, political affiliations, aid programs, overseas bases, Hollywood and its huge network of MNCs.  Most importantly it has been able to reinvent itself after every setback to emerge stronger: be it economic setbacks like depression of the 19030s or the global meltdown of 2008 or be it military setbacks like the Pearl Harbour or Twin Tower attacks. It has been able to ward off competition from USSR and emerge bigger.

The Soviet Union (USSR)

The USSR was the briefest superpower. It was a period of global bipolarity where the poles were capitalism and communism. USSR was founded on the erstwhile Russian Empire. It rose to be a superpower at the end of the WW2. It disintegrated by the 90s in the aftermath of a Cold War with USA. USSR was so huge that it was difficult to knock out as Napoleon and Hitler discovered. The huge, resource-rich landmass fulfilled Mackinder’s Heartland Theory that whoever controlled the Eurasian heartland could then control Eurasia and thus the world. It rivalled the USA on all counts- militarily, technologically, economically and in soft power. Communism was its defining ideology which propelled it to superpower status but ultimately caused its demise. At its peak, the communist ideology propagated by it was global. It included China also. Russia, its successor state inherited USSRs global influence and still wields it. Russia is still a power but falls short of being a superpower since it could not reinvent itself as USA has repeatedly done.    


The Chinese Middle Kingdom mentality makes them believe they are the ‘center of everything’. Traditionally Chinese subscribe to the “one world, one ruler” ideology.  The “century of humiliation” from 1840s is an aberration to overcome. They want their rightful place on Earth – Undisputed No1 Superpower. They are working in that direction ceaselessly. Many believe that China will overtake USA as the world No1 power by 2050. Let us examine as to where things stand.
Economy. Economically, China is already a Superpower. Its GDP will overtake the USA’s very soon as seen in the table above.  Economy is their big bet to Superpower Status. Looking beyond the obvious, China’s GDP on a per-capita basis leaves it far behind( see graphic below). This dichotomy will be difficult to resolve since citizens of all past superpowers were also the most well off in the world except in USSR. USSR failed due to that. China has a similar danger.   

The Belt and Road Initiative BRI is clearly part of the Chinese cheque book diplomacy to expand their economic footprint, control international trade and achieve world domination.  BRI performs some of the functions of USA’s foreign aid programs. It will generate long-term revenue, ties and dependencies. The BRI gambit is the modern version of the Mongol Empire conquering Silk Route countries and the British Empire model of establishing trading posts prior to colonization. However, there are issues. The BRI map spans Asia, Europe and North Africa only. It will not get China to world domination. Moreover, BRI is facing push backs. Mainly, countries are realizing that BRI is about usurious loans leading to debt traps and not aid and assistance from a superpower.

Trade War. Further, the ongoing Trade War has exposed Chinese economic limitations. Its economy is cooling and started plateauing. China seems to have hit the middle-income trap and will find it difficult to get out of it. All this will be compounded by its chronic energy problems with no solution in sight.

Military. China is investing heavily to build the most powerful military in the world. It has been reforming and streamlining military organization and structures. It is transforming from land to a balanced sea-based power. China needs a strong military to dominate, project its force, protect its interests, and adjudicate in international conflicts. Importantly, it is a must, to control the choke points and gates of world commerce.   
To this end, it has started altering equations in the South China Sea. It has established its first base in Djibouti. It is developing Gwadar as a naval base to control Hormuz Strait. It has invested heavily in the Panama Port. It has started building and deploying an array of multiple weapon platforms. It is betting big on disruptive technologies to weaponize them and expand the battlefield into Space, Cyber and Electronic Warfare domains. It is altering the established paradigms of military power through technology. However, its military has major problems. It lacks a carrier fleet to project power globally. It lacks technology to produce top quality jets.  Its platforms and capabilities are often hyped and untested. Most importantly it lacks battlefield experience. It has no experience whatsoever of asymmetric and hybrid war which is virtually the order of the day. The real problem for the Chinese Military is internal. Tibet, Xinjang and Hong Kong are restive. Taiwan is still an island too far.  If Koreas’ unite, USA could be on the Yalu. It has a problem with India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines and Japan. Its prosperous East coast is vulnerable. Also, the PLA must protect the party more than the people. China must therefore retain considerable military power to protect its homeland.  That will restrict it capability to project power overseas. South China sea is restrictive and gives no elbow room. It has problems of even breaking out beyond the first Island Chain. Beyond this it must confront powerful navies forming the Quad– Indian, Japanese, Australian and US. All in all, China has a strong but imbalanced military at present. Will it achieve superpower status with an ‘Untested in Battle ‘tag? Long way to go. If it must overcome all these deficiencies it will have to fund its military much more. Can it afford to do so? USSR collapsed exactly due to this factor.

Soft Power. China realizes the importance of soft power. It has been using every platform and opportunity to project its soft power and culture beginning with Olympics, International Conferences, Naval Fleet Reviews and Military Parades. There are heavy outreaches from its academic institutions and think tanks. It has expanded its diplomatic corps to project its viewpoint and make alliances. It has been making lot of effort to make Yuan to replace the dollar as the international reserve currency. However, its financial system is largely underdeveloped, subject to government meddling and is accused of currency manipulation. This is underscored by the fact that 50% of wealthy Chinese themselves want to siphon money out their country to Australia, USA or Canada.  China has very few formal allies.  Pakistan its staunchest ally is a well-known failed state and sponsor of terror. China needs global support and trust to become a superpower, which it lacks in the current political climate. China does not accept global responsibilities or take up a role as guarantor of world order.  Its stances to curb religion, dissent and opacity inhibits trust in the Government. Its language is not understood by many.  Its disastrous one child policy is a poor example of social policies. Overall there is a huge soft power gap.

Not Yet a Superpower

China has clear ambition, intent and determination to attain superpower status. All things considered China is a great power and will continue to be so in times to come. However, is it a  superpower? Not yet. It has some distance to go. It must overcome its reputation of IPR theft, nuclear proliferation and lack of respect for international law. It must be more transparent.  Its military imbalances and deficiencies need to be righted. Its soft power needs lot of burnishing. As it rises further it needs to be more accommodating of other viewpoints. It needs to be trustworthy.    


  1. Informative Article Sir. Thanks.

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