Does China want to be a superpower? In the White House, at least, there seems to be little doubt. Rush Doshi, director for China on President Joe Biden’s National Security Council, has just published a book in which he argues that Beijing is pursuing a “grand strategy” to “displace American order” and become the world’s most powerful nation.
Superpower status is a source of national pride and brings significant economic and political benefits. But it also involves costs, risks and burdens. Just last week, nine Chinese nationals were killed in a terrorist attack in Pakistan, a country now firmly in Beijing’s sphere of influence. The call for reprisals in nationalist circles in China echoes the American reaction when terrorists have targeted US citizens.
The Chinese, like the Americans, are upset and confused that their efforts to bring peace and development, as they see it, have been met with violence. It is all faintly reminiscent of the lament of Rudyard Kipling, a poet who celebrated British imperialism but warned of, “The blame of those ye better/ The hate of those ye guard.”
Becoming a superpower is a complicated business. It poses a series of connected questions about capabilities, intentions and will. To use a sporting analogy, you can be an extremely gifted tennis player and genuinely want to be world champion but still be unwilling to make the sacrifices to turn the dream into reality.
It is in the military domain that the distinction between capabilities, aspiration and will is most important. In recent years, China has transformed its war-fighting potential. The Chinese navy now has more vessels than the US one. Some senior American military officers openly doubt whether the US would prevail in a battle over Taiwan.
President Xi Jinping’s government is fond of displaying military might in parades in Beijing, and there is plenty of warlike, nationalist rhetoric on the internet and in the press. Chinese troops engaged in a deadly skirmish with Indian ones in the Himalayas last year. Nonetheless, Evan Medeiros, Asia director in former president Barack Obama’s White House, argues that it is unclear that China is willing or able to take on the burdens of being a US-style global military power.
China has not fought a war since it clashed with Vietnam in 1979 and boasts of its “peaceful rise”. Unlike the US, Beijing has also historically been very reluctant to promise to defend its friends and allies. China has only one overseas military base in Djibouti in east Africa, compared with hundreds of US military facilities overseas.
If the Chinese government or people are reluctant to go to war, that is doubtless to their credit. But wars have tended to be the means by which new superpowers emerge and remake the world order, from Britain in the 19th century to the Soviet Union and the US in the 20th century.
China’s economic weight, as the world’s largest trading power and manufacturer, gives it significant political leverage internationally. Countries that are dependent on Chinese trade or investment are often reluctant to clash with Beijing — which partly explains the muted global reaction to China’s policies of mass internment in Xinjiang.
But Beijing’s economic power is not always politically decisive. Although China is the largest trading partner of Japan, South Korea and Australia, these countries have defied Beijing on occasion. The South Koreans allowed the US to deploy a missile defence system on their territory; Japan has refused to yield in territorial disputes; Australia infuriated Beijing by calling for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19.
The Japanese, South Koreans and Australians are all democracies that are wary of being drawn into the political orbit of an authoritarian, one-party state. They are also treaty allies of the US and have US military bases on their soil — which may give them the confidence to push back against China.
China sometimes hints that America’s security guarantees cannot be relied upon. But the credibility of the US alliance system would only collapse if Washington failed to intervene after China had attacked a US ally. Fortunately, there is no real evidence that China is yet prepared to take that risk — even with Taiwan, which does not have an unambiguous US defence guarantee.
Rather than trying to undermine America’s global network of alliances and bases, China could try to build up its own alternative system. The White House’s Doshi argues that China is gearing up to expand its global military footprint — perhaps by adding a military component, alongside the civilian port facilities that it has been buying or developing all over the world.
But that expansion, while plausible, has not yet happened. Even if China were to develop a naval presence in ports such as Gwadar in Pakistan or Hambantota in Sri Lanka, it seems unlikely that Beijing would offer the security guarantees that have made so many countries willing to welcome American troops and bases. The US is committed to defend its 29 allies in Nato and has also offered military protection to roughly 30 other countries, including Japan, Australia, South Korea and much of Latin America.
If China is unwilling or unable to achieve a global military presence that rivals that of the US, it may have to find a new way of being a superpower — or give up on the ambition.