China – The next global superpower?

7 Mar

Whilst superpowers such as the USA took years to establish and grow in strength to a global level, China has gone through this transition at a rapid rate, powering onto the world stage in only a couple of decades. Britain and its empire once had this superpower status but this was reduced after WW2 through economic crises and the USSR and USA spent the remaining years until 1991 fighting an ideological battle described as the Cold War, in order to demonstrate their dominance and superiority (Edexcel Geography 2009). After the USSR’s collapse in 1991, the USA has more recently and traditionally been viewed as the leading global superpower, defined as a significantly “powerful and influential nation” (Oxford Dictionary 2014) with important impacts across trade, flows of capital, resources and culture. The rise of McDonaldization whereby 30,000 McDonald’s fast food stores are now operating in over 100 countries (McDonalds, 2014) highlights an example of their increasing influence across a variety of dominating factors. However, with China’s recent rise in power, does the USA face significant competition, does China have the capacity to become the World’s next largest power or will China and the USA become bipolar superpowers alongside each other?

There are arguably a number of important components a country has to fulfil to gain superpower status. Predominantly these include “economic, cultural, military and geographical influence” (Edexcel 2009) on a global level with wide access to international decision making and energy resources, a growth of well-known TNCs and nuclear capability also important.

The most powerful of these criteria for China has been its economic capability over the past two decades after the introduction of “capitalist market principles” (BBC, 2012). China’s Open Door Policy of 1979 allowed the country (once very closed off to the world) to reform its economy through Special Economic Zones and privatisation which in turn increased FDI considerably (National Bureau of Economic Research, 1995) and allowed China to bear the least burden during the 2008 economic recession which had impacts worldwide. China now has the World’s second largest economy to the USA after having a staggering GDP growth rate average of 9.5% between 1980 and 1990  (National Bureau of Economic Research, 1995) and a GDP of $7.2 trillion in 2011 (BBC, 2012), with this figure expected to continue to rise.  Although there are many different debates surrounding whether or not China will overtake the USA’s economy, the general consensus is that if China’s economic growth continues at a steady rate then they could gain status of having the largest economy by 2030. This puts China in a strong position to become a superpower of similar strength to that of the USA.

As well as its economic power, China’s influence has grown through a number of other key criteria. Geographically they are positioned in South Asia, an area which is growing in importance globally as it becomes economically stronger, is in a central location for trade, has a variety of resources such as labour and energy and is playing a wider role in international decision making. For example, since its Open Door Policy, China has not only engaged with international organisations such as the United Nations, World Trade Organisation, World Intellectual Property Organisation and the World Bank, but it has taken on important roles in coordinating them (ICCS Journal of Modern Chinese Studies, 2011). Furthermore, China’s population have been relatively young and education levels vastly increased therefore providing it with a strong workforce which attracts FDI and TNCs. China also boasts a large and extensive army capable of exerting military influence and is becoming a lead role in renewable energy with the opening of the world’s largest hydropower source, the Three Gorges Dam in 2003, capable of generating 22.5 million kilowatts (equivalent of 15 nuclear reactors) (Daily Mail 2012).

However, despite these developments highlighting China’s capacity to become a superpower, there are still many issues holding it back. Fundamentally its political stance has been described as preventing significant reform and causing China to become fragile as a rising middle class become more confident in speaking out about their rights. Shirk (China, fragile superpower, 2007) even goes as far to argue that China’s politicians are scared of their own people rising and challenging their oppressive communist government, suggesting that at some point in the future China may face significant political tension, toppling it from achieving superpower status. Furthermore there are also issues with a (soon to be) severely ageing population (reducing workforce numbers), severe environmental issues such as air pollution, deep rooted tension with other Asian countries such as Japan, a lack of cultural influence worldwide, growing inequality between the urban rich and rural poor and continuously poor human rights records. For example this can recently be seen with the jailing of Xu Zhiyong who has spent years campaigning for children’s rights and against corruption within the Chinese government, highlighting issues of freedom of speech (BBC 2014).

Nonetheless, despite these issues, China has a strong capability of achieving superpower status alongside the USA in the near future. Some of the issues China faces such as inequality and environmental degradation can also be identified within the USA showing it is not an isolated issue for China but that every growing power faces these problems even after they are well established. Although China may face competition from the other rising BRICs, it has been pushed to the front of the league through its significant economic growth, but whether this can overtake that of the USA is yet to be seen. The future for China looks positive, however, without any shift politically, there may be political tension and conflict in the future, much like that between the USSR and the USA during the Cold War period. It appears most likely that although China may gain some superiority over the USA in terms of economic growth, the USA will maintain dominance over other superpower signifiers such as a cultural spread worldwide, TNC influence and geographical power.

BBC news. 2014. China court sentences Xu Zhiyong to four years in jail. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 March 14].

BBC news. 2013. Is China’s rise unstoppable?. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 March 14].

Daily Mail online. 2012. Breathtaking force: World’s most powerful dam opens in China as gushing water generates the same power as FIFTEEN nuclear reactors . [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 March 14].

George Ritzer and Elizabeth L. Malone . 2000. Globalization Theory: Lessons from the Exportation of McDonaldization and the New Means of Consumption. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 March 14].

History in Focus. 2014. The world the superpowers made. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 March 14].

Ito and Krueger, T.I and A.K, 1995. Growth Theories in Light of the East Asian Experience. National Bureau of Economic Research, 4, 1-6.

McDonalds. 2014. What makes McDonalds. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 05 March 14].

Oxford Dictionary . 2014. Superpower. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 March 14].

Shirk, S.S, 2007. China: fragile superpower. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Zhihai Xie. 2011. The rise of China and its growing role in international organisations. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 04 March 14].


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