Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former British foreign secretary and elder statesman, has published an interesting counterpoint to “China – The Next Superpower“ discussions. Rifkind’s arguments, outlined here, are in essence that the focus on China’s GDP downplays the importance of GDP per capita as a source of Great Power strength, since without widespread prosperity the tax levels key to exerting global power are unaffordable. He points to the low level of Chinese GDP per capita (about US$ 6,500) compared to US GDP per capita (of over US$30,000) as well as the need for China to maintain its precipitous levels of growth for years to come.
RIfkind’s comments ring true. Certainly, China is by no means an "indispensable nation" in the sense that is correct for the US. Talks on major issues in regions as varied as the Middle East (say between Arabs and Israelis), Europe (say between NATO and Russia), and in South East Asia (say between ASEAN and China) all demand an American presence in one or another way. By contrast, only in its region and at international economic discussions is China an essential negotiating partner. Indeed in its region more and more neighbours are forging agreements without China, as their concern about its assertiveness grows.
Beijing’s blue water navy ambitions are also relatively young and face a serious strategic impediment (aircraft carrier destroying missiles notwithstanding) in terms of the "first island chain" in the western Pacific: Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, all US allies. And of course any move towards a more consumption-geared economy in China will prove delicate - risky for the Communist Party - and would go against the grain of the economic model built by Deng and his successors. Economic dislocation, even chaos, is possible if the transition is not sound-footed. The ageing of China’s population, though, may also prove its weakest point. Barry Naughton, a respected China economist, argues that this will start to slow China’s growth from about 2015. Certainly, then, China’s rise is a work in motion rather than a done deal.
Yet not all superpowers fit within Rifkind’s model. The Soviet Union, for instance, long had both a GDP and GDP per capita well below that of the US. The Kremlin made up for this with a single minded dedication to military spending ahead of private consumption - built on the essential slavery of its people and that of its client states - and by piggybacking on nationalism in the third world to win ideological allies. Being a superpower, then, does not always mean being like America.
A further point is that states need not be superpowers in the Cold War meaning of the term, but simply Great Powers in the late nineteenth century sense. Taking the Central Powers in the First World War, this list included Austria-Hungary, a weaker power but one capable of influencing the international relations of its time and of fighting a major war to a surprisingly effective degree. China today clearly outranks the Austria-Hungary of old, recalling more the vibrant economic growth and strident nationalism of Imperial Germany.
As such, China may not yet be a superpower, in the sense we all know from films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris, but it’s certainly already a great power and growing greater. It may also be that seeking a superpower is inappropriate in an increasingly multipolar world that recalls that of the late nineteenth more than the last century.