Geopolitics

Why China Is Still No Superpower

"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 “incomplete power” 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 the coalition 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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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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