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Chinese Whispers: Why Talks of Chinese Supremacy Are Premature



John J. Mearsheimer in “China’s Unpeaceful Rise” (2006, 160) argues that “if China continues its impressive economic growth over the next few decades, the United States and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war”. The realist theory of hegemonic stability proposes that, an emerging power seeking greater influence in the world arena, will be meet with  attempts by other states to contain and balance its growth. The domestic issues Chinese policy makers face coupled with the response of other nations to China’s rapid rise on the international scene would seem to underpin this theory.  Today’s China seems to be facing numerous obstacles that prevent it from usurping the US as the world’s dominant hegemon. These difficulties present a challenge to the realist assumption that states are engaged in a zero-sum game for power on the world stage.  Indeed, rather than engage in a power struggle, the interest of a country may be to maintain existing diplomatic measures and foster cooperation and economic links with other members of the international community. This short essay delineates the obstacles to China’s rise to hegemony, and highlights different reasons why the eventuality of a war for power is unlikely.  

“Only through sustained economic growth can China hope to usurp the US.”


Geographical disputes

Escalating disputes between neighbouring nations concerning the possession of maritime boundaries and islands is an impediment to, rather than evidence of, China’s rise to supremacy. The East and South China Sea region has highly strategic importance because of its natural resources, shipping routes and fishing grounds, and as such is highly sought after. In line with the realist power theory, China is pursuing an aggressive strategy: it has, in fact, increased its active military presence in the region to assert ownership over these islands. In July 2012, China established Sanasha City as “an administrative body with its headquarters in the Parcels which… oversees Chinese territory in the South China Sea”, a move that has led to a deterioration in relations with Vietnam and the Philippines (BBC, 2015). Moreover, talks that the “Chinese navy sabotaged two Vietnamese exploration operations in late 2012 led to large anti-China protests in Vietnam” (BBC, 2015). China’s strong policy approach, however, runs the risk of damaging its international reputation, thus obstructing its rise to hegemony.


Lack of soft power

Like other emerging economies, China is increasing military expenditure. Contrary to common beliefs, however, such investment is not aimed at asserting the country’s domination on the global order: indeed, it represents a routine part of national development. China’s military is significantly inferior to that of the United States (Zhang, 2015: 157), a fact which undermines the arguments for Chinese hegemonic aspirations. Most importantly, however, China lacks soft power (The Atlantic, 2013), a major factor to achieve global prominence. Soft power is defined as “the ability to shape the preferences of others…[through] the power of attraction and seduction” (Nye, 2004: contents). As stated by Donald Clarke, the difficulties in commanding soft power come down to the fact that “governments are institutionally incapable of promoting it” but are not equally incapable of undermining it (The Atlantic, 2013).

“Seeking positive sum economic gains may be more important than the achievement of political supremacy.”


The United States’ soft power, embodied by its influence on global culture and business, has contributed in maintaining its supremacy in world politics. Therefore, despite a relative decline in the global standing of the US economy, the soft power influence possessed by the United States secures its power and impact to a large extent. Although China may be developing its hard power, the country continues to lag behind in the development of a base of soft power and may be doing much to undermine it through its actions in the South China Sea.


Demographic changes

An increasing problem for China today is its so-called “demographic precipice” (Wang Feng, 2012). The one-child policy adopted by the Red Dragon in late 1980’s has produced an ageing population burdening the responsibility of caretaking for two generations in retirement on one child; also known as the “4-2-1 phenomenon” (BBC, 2012). An ageing population means that an increasing proportion of the population will rely on social security and benefits from the government, diverting the attention and spending of government funds from other sectors. It also means a decline in the most significant factor to China’s growth in the past 30 decades – its workforce. As stated by the BBC (2012), “by 2050 more than a quarter of the population will be over 65 years old”. The Chinese economy is in the process of a shift to a “new normal” of slower rates of economic growth and growth in resource consumption, potentially changing the trajectory of the country’s rise to the top and undermining realist projections once again. Only through sustained economic growth can China hope to usurp the US.  


Economic interdependence

Another important reason why China would struggle to play the dominating role in the global order is its economic interdependence with the United States. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms have increased interconnectedness between the two nations in the context of liberal institutionalism, thus decreasing risks of antagonisms. Academics have called this relationship a ‘marriage of convenience’ (Shambaugh, 2009). The establishment of a non-zero-sum game represented by the economic relations between the two countries challenges the traditional realist scepticism towards any form of long-term cooperation. Moreover, China’s increased integration in the liberal international order, illustrated by the ascension to membership of the WTO in 2011, suggests that seeking positive-sum economic gains may be more important than the achievement of political supremacy to the Chinese leadership. Henceforth, when one takes into account the importance of economic growth for China in terms of development at present, the maintenance of these relations are crucial.


Political culture

China’s achievement of a hegemonic status is also hampered by its political culture, deeply shaped by years of communist rule. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ability to indoctrinate the public predominantly depends upon its ideological influence and censorship of the media (Xu, 2015). Such measures, however, are arguably undermining Chinese soft power due to a record of human rights abuses. Furthermore, increased mass protests and civil unrest – especially exacerbated by the growing economic inequality – threaten the ability of the government to maintain its regime of social control. With the Chinese middle-class seeking to attain similar levels of material consumption as that of its Western counterparts, it is questionable whether China will be able to deny parallel gains in personal freedoms.

“With the Chinese middle-class seeking to attain similar levels of material consumption as that of its Western counterparts, it is questionable whether China will be able to deny parallel gains in personal freedoms.”

Widespread talks of China’s rise to hegemony seem to be highly premature. Regardless of the Chinese government’s intentions, this essay has argued that China is undermined by a range of domestic factors. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that China does not have an interest in threatening the global order established by the US after World War II. China’s increased cooperation and integration into the liberal international order point towards greater connectedness between the two states – an outcome that Realism fails to acknowledge and explain. Regional disputes in the Chinese Sea will set the country’s foreign policy agenda for the next few decades, however it is likely, all things considered, that China will embark in a peaceful and highly integrated rise to power within the international community.


BBC, 2012, Ageing China: Changes and Challenges [online] Available at <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-19630110> [Accessed 14 August 2015]

BBC, 2015, Q&A: South China Sea dispute [online] Available at <f> [Accessed 16 August 2015]

Clarke, D., 2013, ‘Can China Do Soft Power?’ ,The Atlantic, [online] Available at < http://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/04/can-china-do-soft-power/274916/> [Accessed 14 August 2015]

Feng, W., 2012, ‘Racing Towards the Precipice’, Brookings, [online], Available at <http://www.brookings.edu/research/articles/2012/06/china-demographics-wang> [Accessed 11 August 2015]

Mearsheimer, J. J, April 2006, ‘China’s Unpeaceful Rise’, Current History: pp. 160-162

Nye, J. S., 2004, ‘Soft Power: The Means To Success in World Politics’, Revised Edition, USA: PublicAffairs

Shambaugh, D., 2009, ‘China and the US: A Marriage of Convenience’, Brookings, [online] Available at < http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2009/01/06-china-shambaugh> [Accessed 12 August 2015]

Xu, B., 2015, ‘Media Censorship in China’, [online] Council on Foreign Relations, Available at http://www.cfr.org/china/media-censorship-china/p11515 [Accessed 12 August 2015]

Zhang, B., 2015, China’s Assertive Nuclear Posture: State Security in an Anarchic International Order, New York: Routledge


is a third year BA International Politics student at King’s College London.

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