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"at best a passive, isolated and confused power"...
"at best a passive, isolated and confused power"...
Zhang Yuanan

China will overtake the United States as the world's singular superpower. This is the conclusion of a 39-country survey of public opinion conducted by the Pew Research Center. Reading this piece of news, some Chinese have responded with excitement, others with doubts.

According to this survey, a majority of the public in 23 out of the 39 countries, including both China and the United States, believe that China has already or is going to replace the U.S. as the planet's No. 1 superpower.

So has China really become the world's greatest force? I'm afraid not. Militarily, America currently has 11 aircraft carriers compared to China's one, which happens to be only a training vessel, not fit for actual combat service.

According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute published in April 2012, U.S. military spending fell by 6% to $682 billion. This is the first time U.S. military expenditure has accounted for less than 40% of global military spending since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. At the same time, China's military expenditure increased by 7.8% to approximately $170 billion. That means U.S. military spending is still about four times that of China.

At an international level, George Washington University Professor David Shambaugh describes China as an “incompletepower” in his new book China Goes Global: The Partial Power. In his view, China remains confused and hesitant in participating in international affairs, still focusing instead on domestic development and defending its territorial interests.

Whereas America cherishes global governance as a model, China is a “moderate revisionist.”

Shambaugh argues that China is not yet influential in international events, nor does it have the capacity to directly impact the actions of other countries. In his opinion, China is at best a passive, isolated and confused power.

The BBC conducted a worldwide poll in May asking respondents to rate 16 countries and the European Union on whether their influence in the world was “mainly positive” or “mainly negative.” Some 42% of respondents said that China has a mainly positive influence globally while 39% rated it as mainly negative. The United States came out slightly better than China with the two proportions at 48% and 34%, respectively.

A glimpse of the attitudes of China's neighbors shows a similar conclusion. According to the Pew Research Center survey, citizens of Japan, Philippines and South Korea feel more positively toward Americans than toward the Chinese, with territorial disputes obviously playing a role in these countries' attitudes. If China cannot mend unharmonious relations with its neighboring countries in the medium to long term, or worse — if it slips into the morass of conflict — this won't be conducive to China's peaceful development. This will also constrain the speed of rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Soft power gets hard

Besides, in the Pew survey, a majority of respondents in 26 of 38 countries polled (not including China) believe the Chinese take unilateral action in international affairs. The concern that the Chinese government doesn't consider other countries' interests in its diplomatic policymaking are particularly strong in the Asia-Pacific region (Japan 89%, South Korea 79%, Australia 79%), and in Europe (Spain 85%, Italy 83%, France 83%, UK 82%).

Of all the polled countries, only the Middle East favors China over the United States. Overall, Africa and Latin America are the two continents that have most favorable impression about China, even though they are still more favorable to the U.S.

Despite China's massive aid and investments in Africa and Latin America, its soft power in these continents is nonetheless insufficient. As the survey showed, whether it's about technology, music, business practices or philosophy, China lags behind the United States.

Admittedly, as Chinese enterprises have gone global in recent years, soft power has also become valued by Chinese decision-makers. Confucius Institutes have sprung up in every corner of the world, and cultural exchanges with other countries are in full swing. But soft power cannot be achieved at once. Rather than a stormy breakthrough, promoting China's soft power will require an imperceptible finesse. This is going to take time.

Values and interests

As François Godement, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations pointed out, “China neither is at the heart of a multilateral regime nor does it have a single significant ally. It must permanently juggle a coalition of interests — which sometimes aligns it with developing countries, sometimes with other emerging economies, and also increasingly with the developed industrial societies whose political models it rejects.”

Meanwhile, since the Cold War ended, America has been working on building a coalition of the willing based on common values, rather than thecoalition of interests" built-in unpredictability.

So it's only in economic terms that China can move within reach of superpower status. Whereas the survey showed 41% of respondents believe America to be the world's economic leader, a drop of 6% compared with 2008, 34% believe that China is the global economic leader, 14% higher compared to five years ago.

The Economist forecast holds that "annual GDP growth averages for the next decade, are 7.75% in China and 2.5% in America, inflation rates average 4% and 1.5%, and the RMB appreciates by 3% a year. Plug in these numbers and China will overtake America in 2018. Alternatively, if China's real growth rate slows to an average of only 5%, then (leaving the other assumptions unchanged) it would not become number one until 2021."

When China can overtake the United States economy will depend on China's growth model reform. The International Monetary Fund pointed out on June 17, in its latest annual review about Chinese economic development, that it is “unprecedentedly urgent” to reform China's current heavy reliance on overseas exports, and that infrastructure investment-led growth models are unsustainable. If China doesn't put forward reforms quickly, its annual GDP growth will slide to around 4% after 2018, and by 2030 its per capital GDP would remain about a quarter of that of the U.S. through 2030.

Whether, and when, China becomes a superpower depends on whether and when China becomes a complete power. Until then, it's too early to draw any definitive conclusion.

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