Is China’s Political Power Enough to Make it a Superpower?

Yesterday we looked at how China’s growing GDP was putting it a step closer to being a superpower, but also that GDP alone is not enough. Today we will be continuing our look at China’s growing role in the world, and what that means for the rest of us.

Political Power

China’s political power is growing even faster than it’s GDP. Through generous aid programs to much of the developing world, China has secured itself as the figurehead of this rather large group of nations. As I mentioned yesterday, being able to project these kinds of powers are a crucial part of the definition of a superpower.

It surprised many during the climate change debates that China (and others) had effectively organized themselves to avoid carbon emission limits in their countries. Even though most of these countries will be the first to experience the effects of climate change (I’m looking at you South Pacific island nations), they have elected the world’s biggest polluter as their spokesperson.

So how is it that China has managed to create such a coalition?

For starters, many of the countries that rally behind China are not democracies. China’s version of international affairs holds firmly to the idea of minding one’s own business. China will ignore your genocide, if you are willing to say that Taiwan is a part of China, Tibet should never separate, and stay out of our human rights issues (not that China admits it has any). These policies have helped China to make enough allies to help push their issues through at the UN and in dozens of other forums and meetings.

Unfortunately for the West, democracies and dictatorships count as equals in international summits.  In fact being the antagonist of the West seems to be a position that China has grown quite fond of lately. The stances that make China so popular with many dictatorships, are the same stances that many of the people in those countries and others despise.

Other countries have been enticed through generous loans and aid and, perhaps most importantly, access to China’s massive domestic market. The stability offered by China’s gov’t makes it one of the few developing countries safe enough to invest in (that is in comparison to places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cameroon).

Perhaps most importantly, China has taken the role of the opposition party. In most international issues China is simply against what the West wants, but offers no solution of it’s own.

This has been most apparent in the recent Libyan civil war. China allowed the UN to pass the resolution that permitted foreign involvement in the country (China says this was only out of respect for the African Union), but has bashed NATO for it’s actions since the first day. China has only offered the suggestions 1) give peace a chance, and 2) we should stay out of Libya’s internal affairs. Neither of these show any kind of leadership.

China clearly possesses the political power it needs to be consider a superpower, but still lacks the ability/will to use that power to be a global leader.

15 responses to “Is China’s Political Power Enough to Make it a Superpower?”

  1. vietnamsoul says:

    Hmm…China is big country in this world. It’s famous for Chinese Culture and Historic Structure. I live in Vietnam, the small country which lies under China on the map. It’s over 4000 years but I wonder why China always wants to occupy Vietnam. I’m very proud of Vietnamese history with the great victories in the wars with China. Nowaday, China wants the Paracel and Spratly Islands of Vietnam. I see the lesson of Mongolia, Tibet and East Turkestan. Actually, I don’t hate all of Chinese but I hate the Chinese who want to invade Vietnam. Everyone in this world likes peace and I think you do, too.

    • Tom says:

      I understand your concerns over the islands. China seems to have neighbors and friends, but there are getting to be fewer and fewer countries that are both.

      • NiubiCowboy says:

        I remember reading a blog entry somewhere where this question was posed to ordinary Chinese people: who are China’s closest friends/allies? It was a simple question that proved surprisingly hard to answer. Even countries that could be named as a friend might differ greatly in terms of their governments’ relationships with China and their citizens’ feelings towards China. If you asked the same question to citizens of the world’s only superpower at present, I’d imagine they’d easily rattle off the UK, the EU, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Australia, etc.

      • Tom says:

        I would say that China’s neighbors that can be counted as friends are N. Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan and Russia, not exactly a shining beacon of hope.

  2. Tim says:

    I move back and forth between two ideas in my mind:
    1) China’s mantra of “We love peace” is actually just a smokescreen for “We want to dominate the world” (ie. “We still have a grudge”). The reason I lean this way sometimes is because the Chinese gov’t has proven that it actually cares nothing at all for peace. When you crush your own people with violence, that’s not peaceful. When you assault foreign journalists in the street, that’s not peaceful. I don’t think there’s one non-Chinese person who actually believes the Chinese gov’t when they talk about “Giving peace a chance”. The only thing for me that redeems this idea is Chinese people (as in: not the gov’t). I do believe that most Chinese people desire peace.

    2) Chinese foreign policy is a joke, therefore they will never amount to anything serious in the international community. This is compounded by an economy that is destined to crash (especially the housing market). How can the international community take a country seriously who acts like a petulant child every time something doesn’t go their way?

    In reality, I generally exist somewhere in between these ideas and really only reach these extremes (yes, I do recognize they’re both extremes) on bad days. China has tremendous, tremendous potential, but needs to work out many small and many very large issues before it can project power that people will respect. Of course, that’s a whole other discussion – do you need to be respected to hold and project power?

    Good stuff Tom.

    • Tom says:

      You are right here Tim, the truth is always somewhere in between. I think China has a lot of domestic issues that need to be dealt with.
      Also China needs to confront the idea that they should never be involved in other country’s internal affairs. I have talked with many Chinese who have expressed this ideal, but when they are asked what should be done when a gov’t is killing it’s own people, they can’t really find a good answer. China’s inaction with Libya was a step away from their old policy of blocking these kinds of votes, so I’ll take that as a promising sign.

  3. NiubiCowboy says:

    As long as China remains on its current political trajectory, I don’t see them becoming a superpower anytime soon. When responding to world events like the crisis in Libya, the sinking of the Cheonan, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the response has been the same: we urge all parties to resolve the situation through peaceful means and/or we denounce [insert other country’s name here]’s entry into [other country]’s internal affairs. In the case of Korea, urging all sides to exercise restraint is like asking the guy getting punched in the face to chill out and get over it. In the years since the Korean War came to an end, North Korea has attempted to assassinate South Korean leaders at least three times, it’s kidnapped Japanese citizens to use as teachers for North Korean spies, it’s attempted to infiltrate the South on numerous occasions, it’s consistently sought to develop a nuclear weapon, it destroyed the Cheonan, killed several people on Yeonpyeong Island in a warning attack, and the South is told to exercise restraint? In the case of Libya, China had a chance to take a leadership role in creating an opposition to the resolution, but the government instead chose to abstain from voting. No one’s going to look for political leadership from China in times of crisis if the only suggestion it can give to the world community is, “Stop. We hope everything works out but it’s not our business to even speculate on whether it will work out or not. KTHXBYE.”

    • Tom says:

      You are getting a bit ahead of me here, I was going to combine many of these ideas into tomorrow’s post about military strength. So far China has not really been able to show leadership on any international action.

      • NiubiCowboy says:

        Sorry about that! Great series thus far though..I’m anxiously awaiting the next two posts!

    • Tim says:

      Ok, I laughed out loud at that last part…. KTHXBYE. Nice.

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  6. Chopstik says:

    My first thought was “what political power”? And it seems from your post and some of the additional commentary that I’m not the only one with that thought in mind. Intending no disrespect to China or its government but it is more concerned with maintaining the hold it has on power domestically and all of its international considerations are made only with its domestic concerns of primary consideration. Hence, its constant refrain on domestic sovereignty and external parties should not be allowed to interfere is all done in order to ensure that no interference will be perpetrated upon itself by other nations (e.g. – the West).

    Of course, it could be argued that all nations make decisions on international affairs as they relate to themselves but China tends to take it to an extreme. Is it because it is a single-party dictatorship (regardless of what it calls itself) and is more than a little concerned for its own welfare that it does so seemingly more often than “democratic” nations – perhaps. But the point here is not so much why but to acknowledge the fact that it is and that China participates in international activities typically only under duress or when it benefits the party or country (in that order) specifically.

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  8. I think I'm Chinese says:

    The writer fails to – through no fault of his own – try to discount his inherent – I assume, Western – preconceptions/biases.
    The most FUNDAMENTAL difference between China and Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian-Western civilisation is that the ‘Golden Rule’ is phrased in the negative, e.g. see Confucius, “己所不欲,勿施於人。 What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”
    Meaning, China is most predisposed to not doing things to others.

    In the West, the ‘Golden Rule’ is phrased in the positive: e.g. “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
    Meaning, the West is most predisposed to doing things to others, e.g. intervention, proselytisation, missionary activism.

    If you think about this, then reflect on your experiences in China, you will understand how often it is played out in the Confucian form than the Western form.

    Anyway, I appreciate your articles for the perspective it offers.

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