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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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.


Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️


I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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