The title of the article could well be ‘China’s arrival as a superpower’ to ‘When did China arrive as a superpower’ if that actually has already happened, catching many of us (including global journalists and policy-makers) napping.  

‘Well, it was sort of expected but we never thought it could happen so fast’ is the usual response they must be muttering to themselves, more so if this outcome is something neither desired nor sought after by them. 

Couple of days back, while reading an article in The Wall Street Journal on World Economic Forum at Davos; one particular paragraph, or the last part of it (from Marcus Walker and Andrew Batson) caught my attention. And it was: 

‘The global financial crisis and the stumbling efforts to tackle climate change have highlighted the mounting evidence that China is becoming the world’s second-most influential country after the U.S.’ .

In twitter, I commented: ‘I differ. China got it long back; Western media & Govt. realized it late.’ Alternatively; if China hasn’t yet been the de facto 2nd influencing country; who is it?  

There are times when we tend to look at insignificant evidences to pre-conclude a much-desired and sought after outcome; there are times when we also to tend to ignore and look otherwise if the outcome tends to disrupt existing global order, much against the desire of makers and reporters of same.  

A look at how rest of the world is viewing the Google-China dispute proves the point (here’s from Arab News; Middle-East’s leading English daily). Googling Google News (English) for keywords like the US, Russia, UK, EU or India also provides a crude indicator on a large sample base on how these countries figure in in shaping up (local and) global matters. The US comes in around 650,000 news-articles in Google News whereas China scores nearly 300000; UK comes at 290000, EU at 20000, India at 177000 and Russia gets mentioned in 80000 articles. One needs to keep in mind the native language of these countries and that of its local media to estimate how much of that content is likely in matters of global or regional issues (assuming search results bring in English language content only). 

Sometime back, browsing on an altogether different topic on Innovation, Black Swans,  & Disruptions; I liked one particular observation on nature of forecasts we make in general on disruptive trends. And it read: 

‘We tend to overestimate the impact of technology in the short run and underestimate the same in the long run.’ 

Can something similar be happening for China as well, as rise of China doesn’t come as an often-repeated pattern in historical outcome; but more of following a disruptive trend with it? Because all long term forecasts on China (where China is likely to be in 2010?) have probably fallen flat as they did for disruptive innovations like Internet or the mobile phones? 

Historically, there’s been two essential components needed to acquire the status of a global superpower. One has been the economic part of it and the other has been the military component of it. Lately importance of softpower has emerged as another important component in today’s complex inter-dependent global eco-system of nation-states. 

At the same time the concept and therefore the applicability of concepts like superpower is not static. Superpower was a term first used in 1944 and probably its usage declined in describing real conflicts with the fall of the USSR and its symbolic Berlin Wall. Walker and Batson in that WSJ article were careful in using ‘second most influential nation’ to describe China; after the US in same ranking. Therefore reading how Wikipedia defines of the term ‘Superpower’ may help as we tend to overplay outdated and old mindsets in explaining new-age phenomena of rising China. 

Going by that definition of Superpower, if one has to form necessary and sufficient capabilities a nation must possess to qualify as a superpower, it would be (1) ability to be in a (relatively) sustainable leading position (comprising economic, military & softpower might) in the international system; (2) ability to influence global events to protect/manipulates its own interests against that of the world (which again needs those three components of power); and (3) ability to project (executable real) power in a worldwide scale (primarily economic and military). 

Coming back to the components of superpower, I have been following GDP figures.  Since long I felt that the GDP numbers are not adequate in measuring true economic might of diverse nations around the world, due to the way GDP accounting is done, even for PPP.  

In 1989, USSR was the 2nd largest economy (GDP of nearly $2.7 trillion against GDP of US being $5.2 trillion that time). However post 1989, it plummeted until 1999 (to nearly $300 billion). True the two sources were different and their figures for 1989 don’t exactly match. 

That’s my problem in accepting GDP figures. True ‘civilizations die from suicide, not from murder’ as Arnold Tonybee stated. So without a bomb being dropped on any of the USSR economic activities, they crumbled. It’s a valid argument for believers of GDP to state that in a controlled economy, such a collapse is possible; but not in a market-economy. 

Huntington (in ‘The Clash of Civilization’) subsequently dwelled on the idea on how cultural or religious believes might lead to post cold-war era conflicts. With global war on terror since 9/11, a large part of the world witnessed conflicts fundamentally originating from religious and cultural mindsets. As the cold war took its toll on the USSR economies; the global war on terror has taken its toll on the US economies. 

Coming back to the collapse of controlled economy of the USSR post-1989; we also witnessed efficacy of market-determined economic activities. It could have been a nightmare of economic hypothesis had those unprecedented bail-outs and unforeseen government interventions in a so-called market economy had not happened. 

So unless the whole of the USSR was another Enron story, it’s difficult to justify why its economy shrank by nearly 90% post 1989 over the next ten years.  

So the economic projections made by various researchers and mentioned in mainstream media from time to time on when BRIC (read particularly China) is likely to dethrone the existing economic orders is more of an elementary line filling syndrome following historical analysis of forecasts. They more often get it wrong than right. It tends to remind how we tend to overestimate disruptive technology in the short run and underestimate same in the long run. It also highlights the complexities involved in long-term forecasting dealing with disruptive forces where past is no longer the indicator of the future.

Because no researcher or journalist from the mainstream has ever given less than a decade’s time in forecasting that China’s economy would be bigger than that of the US.   This may again sound out of the acceptable arguments; however I viewed China as the largest economic superpower couple of years back. In terms of capacity of consumption or production (demand or supply side); other than energy and airline industry (and military); I don’t see any other major industry where China ranks second to the US (many may look at banking; however in China, banking and trading contributes to real economy whereas in the US it’s more of a speculative economy).  Leave aside early adopter sales indicators of technology products; sooner or later China would catch up and beat those numbers.  

Going by that economic might and prevalent global scenario that occupies the US; the disruptive force of China has suddenly changed itself internally from downplaying its influential might (following ‘hide one’s capacities & bide ones time’ of Deng Xiaoping as the WSJ article pointed out) to being more assertive; traditionally more common in the West. Probably there’s been a shift in Chinese policies. For bigger issues (more so internally due to patriotic sentiments of a rising educated middle class); it’s no longer possible for China to wait for further developments and remain aloof on conflicting issues. An article in the Forbes by Shaun Rein (‘Let’s not forget that the Pew Center has found that 86% of Chinese are happy with the direction the government is taking the country’) and another belligerent posturing by Han Dongping in the China Daily are testimonial to this.

Externally the same disruptive forces didn’t prepare the single superpower US to be challenged by China so early on issues of Taiwan arms sales or to issues dealing with cyber warfare as Google-China dispute highlighted. And deeper probing suggests China is merely doing what the US has been doing for years in an unchallenged manner (on external fronts).  This disruptive force of China is true both within China and beyond it. Reading many of the comments on issues of such recent conflicts show how paranoid the Chinese feel (reaching near-dangerous levels, I must say!) about the double standards of the US. Chinese policy-makers may be forced to act on that wave than wait further to consolidate its influences following Deng. 

Unfortunately, that may not ultimately lead to a ‘peaceful’ rise of China!

Ranjit Goswami is an Associate Professor at Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, & the author of the book, Wondering Man, Money & Go(l)d

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