Why China won’t become a superpower

Summary:  Will China become a superpower in the next decade? The US military describes China as a more than a rival – it is a looming threat, and a reason to fund our massive military build-up. Here is a different answer that you won’t see in the news. It would ruin the narrative.

US-China trade war - Dreamstime_113188035
ID 113188035 © Florin Seitan | Dreamstime.

For the past decade or so, China has been widely seen as the next superpower – replacing an America in decline. This story justifies the next wave of US military spending. As described in this article, that might be a myth.

China’s Not a Superpower Chinese Translation by Minxin Pei.

In The Diplomat, January 2010.

The author is a Prof of Government at Claremont McKenna College. His latest books are China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy (2006) and China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay (2016). Opening …

“With the United States apparently in terminal decline as the world’s sole superpower, the fashionable question to ask is which country will be the new superpower? The near-unanimous answer, it seems, is China. Poised to overtake Japan as the world’s 2nd largest economy in 2010, the Middle Kingdom has all the requisite elements of power – an extensive industrial base, a strong state, a nuclear-armed military, a continental-sized territory, a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and a large population base – to be considered as Uncle Sam’s most eligible and logical equal.

“Indeed, the perception that China has already become the world’s second superpower has grown so strong that some in the West have proposed a G2 – the United States and China – as a new partnership to address the world’s most pressing problems.

“To be sure, the perception of China as the next superpower is grounded, at least in part, in the country’s amazing rise over the last three decades. Powered by near-double-digit economic growth since 1979, China has transformed itself from an isolated, impoverished, and demoralized society into a confident, prospering global trading power. With a GDP of $4.4 trillion and total foreign trade of $2.6 trillion in 2008, China has firmly established itself as a premier world economic powerhouse.

“Yet, despite such undeniable achievements, it may be too soon to regard China as the world’s next superpower.”

This is too mild a forecast. For the rest of the story (as Paul Harvey used to say), see this analysis. After eight years, it looks prescient.

Will China become a superpower?

Guest article by Young J. Kim (Captain, US Army, retired).
Originally posted here on 9 September 2011.


Pei is not discounting what China has accomplished, many notable inventions and scientific discoveries range from the Chinese be the first to develop gun powder weapons and the first to discover planetary motion 500 years before Brahe and Kepler. However, there are reasons that China didn’t expand into world influence. These are the same factors that had China not expand beyond itself, unlike Europe, despite having built ocean-going vessels that could sail halfway around the world, predating Columbus by almost a century. China has too many internal problems for it to ever commit to a path of global influence.

All of the problems listed by Pei are nothing new to the Chinese experience. Central to all of this is what to do about the hundreds of millions of peasants. Ever since the first Chinese imperial dynasty, this problem has plagued the central government. China as a civilization could function as a civilization, but it is too large and too centralized to govern and manage effectively.

China’s history, and its problems today.

Nearly every single dynastic change was the result of peasant revolts; foreign invasions, for the most part, toppling what was already unstable. Even as recently as the final dynasty of the Qing the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) saw more Chinese dead during this period than the Japanese ever inflicted, with estimates up to 30-40 Chinese million dead. Throughout Chinese history, nearly all of its bloodiest conflicts coincided with dynastic changes. The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) of today has not negated these same factors that plagued Chinese civilization repeatedly throughout history. We should not expect that the Chinese could escape their history any more than we could.

So the question is asking why does China seem to want to assert itself now? That I believe is tied to a centuries-long transition that only recently the Chinese had caught up. Wealth no longer comes from trade along the trade routes of Central Asia but through maritime shipping. This has only made geopolitical conditions for the Chinese even worse off.

Policies attempting to push economic development into the interior of China won’t work due to unnecessary transportation costs to the coastal regions. Their infrastructure in those regions is still undeveloped. China can’t develop them unless they build up a strong domestic economy to support its construction. For China to do this will require that they make that transition from export to a domestic economy. Japan is the only country in the regions with a sizable domestic economy that self-generates its development. Japan, as well as some other countries in Asia, had to make this rather painful transition where some even now have not completed.

Also, China has internal ethnic tensions, over-centralization of the federal government, massive corruption, massive pollution. There are many reasons why China won’t become a superpower in the foreseeable future.

China and its neighbors.

China may be a security concern for the countries in Northeast and Southeast Asia, but nothing they cannot manage on their own. These countries can hold China at bay within their respective regions.

In Northeast Asia alone the Koreans and Japanese combined have more than enough assets for deterrence. If only the Japanese eliminate their outdated stance on pacifism. There is no need for the US to continual subsidizing their security at our expense. Northeast Asia has the technological and economic base to build and develop as a regional security bloc, but there is no incentive so long as the US remains – especially if we continually allow for access to our markets at an advantage.

China poses no existential threat to India. Why try to invade and conquer, only to rule an additional billion or so people when you are having great difficulty ruling your own billion or so citizens?

Southeast Asia? That is an area of interest for nearly all the countries in Asia. We already have the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force {see Wikipedia} sending ship deployments from the TGT Triangle (Tokyo, Guam, Taiwan) with no fewer than 65 vessels to SE Asia and as far away to East Africa.

For Vietnam, Communism was the vehicle for anti-colonialism and independence as against the French and later American. China has subjected Vietnam to various pressures for centuries. Vietnamese history is littered with many rebellions for independence and direct state-to-state conflicts consistently throughout its history. The Sino-Vietnamese War repeats old conflicts, when Vietnam refused Chinese reassertion into their region.

That being said, the Chinese never penetrated into SE Asia beyond Vietnam. China has never successfully invaded Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, or even Burma (Burma repelled China’s small invasion force in 1765). China successfully invaded Vietnam. This had much to do with Chinese interests of Hainan Island – adjacent to Vietnam, Chinese territory for many centuries. During the Ming Dynasty, China made its farthest penetration into Vietnam. Even then China didn’t penetrate much beyond Northern Vietnam, leaving the previously mentioned SE Asian countries pretty much alone. China’s interest has always been around Hainan Island. The conflict over the waters in that region dates back centuries.

Today other SE Asian countries watch China’s efforts to secure the ocean trade routes to which it is absolutely dependent upon. Previously there had been no problems between Malaysia and China, or Indonesia and China. Now they will probably develop a shared interest against China (aside from ethnic Chinese being so dominant in the commerce within those countries). Just as it is the case in NE Asia, SE Asia having a shared security interest is also economically capable. ASEAN combined would have the 8th or 9th largest economy in the world. Shared interests with Japan and Korea for securing their commercial access makes all of the countries pretty much on board with how to deal with China.

China and the US.

China is not an existential threat to the US, nor will it ever be. The preferred strategy should be to end the China threat industry and all of its nonsense, scale back and reduce our forces, but seek an opportunity to sell and co-develop weapons with those countries. Our position should be to never get involved with their disputes, rather trade with them. We can always tailor what we sell to whom we sell and with that finally balance our deficits in trade, our governmental budget, and our diplomatic reputation.


No Asian continental power could subdue Southeast Asia fully. Not even the Mongols succeeded in their attempts. The relative power positions of China now is not that much different than in the past. The only major and permanent change to Asia is that Japan became, and remains, a major power.


Globe and China Flag

Other perspectives on China’s rise

How does China see its role in the world? See the films Wolf Warrior (2015) and Wolf Warrior 2 (2017). WWII became the highest-grossing film in China. See Wikipedia for Wolf Warrior and WW II. Especially read this insightful review by Helen Raleigh at National Review.

See these articles from 5 – 10 years ago about China’s path to becoming a superpower. Time has proven they were correct.

  1. China: The Mythification of it being an emergent superpower” by Dr. Subhash Kapila at the South Asia Analysis Group, 2008.
  2. The China Superpower Hoax” by Steven Hill) at TruthDig, 2010.
  3.  “Why the West Rules – For Now” by Ian Morris at The Long Now Foundation, 2011. He is an archaeologist, historian, and Prof of Classics at Stanford. His splendid book is Why the West Rules – for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future (2010).
  4. Henry Kissinger: China Won’t Be Next Superpower“, an interview in The Canadian Press, June 2011.

Current news about China’s economy shows that Kim’s concerns were well-founded.

To see how China sees America, read about this important speech by Major General Qiao Liang of the PLA.

  1. A look at the American Empire.
  2. Judging America’s leadership of the world economy.
  3. A ruthless America striving to contain his nation’s growth.

About the author

Young J. Kim is a former U. S. Army captain with tours in Korea and two in Iraq. He holds a masters degree in defense and strategic studies from Missouri State U. Now he is Chief Technology Officer for Burke Macgregor Group (“develops innovative solutions to achieve national security objectives through achievable transformation”). Also see these articles …

  • Air-Sea Battle: Something’s missing” by him and Douglas Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired) in Armed Forces Journal, April 2012 – “Without ground forces, the U.S. cannot counter Chinese aggression.”
  • More Guns, Fewer Generals” by him and Daniel L. Davis (Lt. Colonel, US Army) at The American Conservative (March 2014) – “Reducing combat capabilities isn’t the only way to save the military money.”

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Chinaabout trade, about globalization, and especially these…

  1. Will China collapse? – Debunking the doomsters, 2009.
  2. A revolution is not a dinner party. Thoughts about the future of China, 2009.
  3. China and America have several similar weaknesses. Our hubris prevents us from seeing this. 2011.
  4. What China Wants Us to Understand about China’s Rise – by Franz Gayl (Major, USMC, retired), 2014.
  5. Will China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank begin a new world order? — It’s more important than the skeptics believe, less threatening than the doomsters say, 2015.
  6. China takes the lead in supercomputing while America sleeps, 2016.
  7. Stratfor: China builds a new Silk Road for the 21st century, 2016.
  8. China builds a new world in which *it* is the great power, 2017.
  9. About Trump’s mad trade war with China, May 2019.
China's Asian Dream: Empire Building along the New Silk Road
Available at Amazon.

For more about rising China

China’s Asian Dream:
empire building along the New Silk Road

By Tom Miller, senior Asia analyst at GaveKal (2017).

From the publisher …

“Under Xi, China is pursuing an increasingly ambitious foreign policy with the aim of restoring its historical status as the dominant power in Asia. From the Mekong Basin to the Central Asian steppe, the country is wooing its neighbors with promises of new roads, railways, dams, and power grids. Chinese trade and investment presents huge opportunities for China’s neighbors, and its ability to build much-needed infrastructure could assist in the development of some of the world’s poorest countries.

“Yet China’s rise also threatens to reduce its neighbours to the status of exploited vassals. In Vietnam and Myanmar, resentment of Chinese encroachment has already incited anti-Chinese protests, and many countries in the region are seeking to counterbalance its influence by turning to the US and Japan. Combining a concise overview of the situation with on-the-ground reportage from over seven countries, China’s Asian Dream offers a fresh perspective on one of the most important questions of our time: what does China’s rise mean for the future of Asia and of the world?”

12 thoughts on “Why China won’t become a superpower”

  1. Godfree Roberts

    The assertions in the quoted articles are not only outdated, they were never correct to begin with. To wit:

    “China has too many internal problems for it to ever commit to a path of global influence.” China’s global influence has doubled every ten years, along with its economy. The BRI, SCO and upcoming RCEP are redoubling it.

    “China as a civilization could function as a civilization, but it is too large and too centralized to govern and manage effectively.” China has grown its economy three time faster than America for 70 years and it will be twice as big by 2028.

    “Wealth no longer comes from trade along the trade routes of Central Asia but through maritime shipping. This has only made geopolitical conditions for the Chinese even worse off.” BRI trade is growing 17.2% compounded, 130 countries have joined and the program won’t even launch formally until 2021.

    “Policies attempting to push economic development into the interior of China won’t work due to unnecessary transportation costs to the coastal regions” Internal growth (read Xinjiang) rates have been 50% faster than coastal growth rates for the past seven years and that trend is expected to continue through 2035.

    “China has internal ethnic tensions, over-centralization of the federal government, massive corruption, massive pollution.” China’s internal ethnic tensions pale compared to ours; its government is the most decentralized on earth; there is zero evidence of corruption affecting policies; pollution of all kinds has been falling 5% annually for the past six years and will continue doing so indefinitely.

    And, btw, any country that can destroy every American city in 55 minutes and every ship and plane within 500 miles of its borders must at least be considered superpower-ish, especially if all of its missiles in every weight category outrange all of ours.

    1. Godfree,

      Wow. That’s a combination of fallacies and pretty gross misreads. Typical for you, which is why you are blocked so many places.

      “especially if all of its missiles in every weight category outrange all of ours.”

      Like almost everything in your comment, that’s silly. The US land-based missiles target known targets – such as China. They don’t need more range. Our ballistic missile submarines and aircraft can reach any other target, from pole to pole.

  2. We really don’t know what will befall China. I think it has big issues that may strangle its forward march. But Maybe not? Pollution; 55% of China’s arable land is heavily polluted. And only 28% of the country is arable land,
    It relies heavily on energy imports apart from coal which is seen as a stranded asset. Closing the strait of Hormuz would likely cripple their industry. The population is ageing disproportionally, too few children. It’s importing a lot of food.

    It has a command economy, Not exactly like MMT. but the ability to spend without factoring in taxes has the same constraints [resources] In the West we don’t recognise that, to our disadvantage, Still, it can’t last forever. on a finite planet.

    I see China growing for a while but more vulnerable to shocks than is the USA, a much more self sufficient nation
    Yes? No?

  3. I agree with the conclusion (“stop the war crap”) although I think this may under-sell the potentials of China to some extent. That said, correctives are correctives, and this has a lot of good perspectives.

    Another possible question: is our conception of a “superpower” obsolete? I don’t know what would replace it. However, I could see China rising to eclipse the US in new venues such as with the infrastructure projects and their resulting diplomatic influence, even if the US continues to whiz money down the rathole of making ever more hyper-advanced weapon systems.

    1. SF,

      “Another possible question: is our conception of a “superpower” obsolete?”

      I don’t understand the question. It is an intermediate class between a hegemonic order (one State dominates “the world” – as Rome did most of the Meditararian for centuries) and a multi-polar order (many great powers, none able to dominate the others – much like Europe for much of its history).

      1. That definition makes more sense. I suppose historically China has been all of these, at least in relation to its sphere of geography. The colloquial usage I had encountered seemed to be that “superpower” = “has, like, carrier groups and stuff, and is scary and big, guys, so big, we swear, please raise the defense budget”.

  4. The Man Who Laughs

    In answer to SF, yes, the concept of “superpower” is obsolete. It’s an artifact of a vanished world. The US and Russia came out of WWII is much better relative shape than the prewar Great Powers, and so became “super” in relative terms. (the US was a lot more super than Russia, which, although it developed a nuclear arsenal lost eight digits worth of people and had a big chunk of its territory laid waste.)

    We’re really back to a world of Great Powers. In the world that existed before World War I, rival Powers jockeyed for relative position, and the peace was kept. when it was kept, by a balancing act. The idea was to protect and advance your own interests without triggering a Great Power war.

    But even if China intends to become a Superpower, for any given definition of that term, we’re not in anything like the position that the French imagined themselves to be in when they decided that fighting Germany in 1914 would be better than fighting them later when France would be weaker in relative terms. The rise of China is not a reason to panic, it’s a reason to attend to our own problems to prevent ourselves from becoming weaker in relative terms.

    One of the definitions of a Great Power (And I can’t remember where I heard it, I seem to want to say the Rise And Fall Of the Great Powers, but that’s probably wrong) is that a Great Power can survive a one on war with any other power. Nowadays I guess that means a conventional war. China and America could do each other some expensive damage, but it’s hard to imagine either landing a knockout blow in a conventional war. Bottom line, we can’t destroy China, and they can’t destroy us. So the answer to protecting our relative power is mostly here at home, not along the First Island Chain or whatever.

    1. The Man,

      I don’t believe you understand the concept of “superpower”, as it is usually used by political scientists and foreign policy professionals. Alice Lyman Miller expressed it well in a 2005 article: “a country that has the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, and sometimes, in more than one region of the globe at a time, and so may plausibly attain {aspire to} the status of global hegemony.”

      The US is by far, at present, the strongest superpower. Hence considered to be close to a hegemonic power. Russia can also do so, but on a far smaller scale. China is building the capacity to do so, although this might take a decade at their current rate.

      The EU was considered a potential superpower, but now it will be fortunate to retain its current level of cohesion – let alone expand its reach.

  5. The Man Who Laughs

    “a country that has the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, and sometimes, in more than one region of the globe at a time, and so may plausibly attain {aspire to} the status of global hegemony.”

    I understand the definition perfectly, and we don’t match it. There’s lots of places where we can’t project “dominating power and influence”. We swing a pretty big stick, but we’re one Great Power among several. We’re not “hegemonic” and haven’t been for a long time, although there plenty of political scientists and policy professionals who apparently haven’t gotten the word yet.

    1. The Man,

      “There’s lots of places where we can’t project “dominating power and influence”. ”

      You still don’t understand. There has never been a state that could project power into every other state. Neither Rome, Spain, or Britain at their peaks could do so. There were always other states too strong for that.

      The definition means what it says, that power can be projected on a global basis – i.e., on a large scale into regions thousands of miles away.

  6. I’m no expert but wasnt the decay of the army a contributing factor to the decline of Rome? I’m sure it was a different kind of decay but a decay nonetheless.

    Anyhow love these recent military pieces.

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