International Relations experts often cite the balance of power theory as one of the most important factors in determining the state of the world both present and future. According to the theory, the United States should consider China to be a credible threat to its, disputable, position as world hegemon. This, however, is only the case if China has in fact grown to match the United States on a number of key fronts. Although touted by many economists as a rapidly growing and expanding economic powerhouse, China is – in reality – a middle power in terms of military might and international political influence. This essay will first discuss China’s growing economic power and whether or not this newfound fiscal prowess can be compared to major western economies, most notably that of the United States. Second, this essay will provide an argument for why China has not achieved significant political and cultural influence on the world stage. Thirdly, China’s military might will be examined, and this essay will combat the idea that China has a strong military simply due to its incredibly large population and reserve force. Despite China’s growing economy, it is clear that, presently, China is a middle-power – a power that is currently not and likely will continue not to be a threat to the United States in the near future.
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Although over the past fifty-or-so years, statistics on the Chinese economy have been not only sparse, but incredibly unreliable, in the past decade numbers released by both the Chinese government and international organizations have exposed the scale at which the Chinese economy is growing. Despite decades of volatility in Chinese GDP growth patterns, since the year 2000, the Chinese economy has grown every year in an increasingly steady rise in annual real GDP per capita.  Because of this drop in volatility, the Chinese government has been successful in creating economic plans that have been much more successful than in previous years. In fact, one of the greatest signs of a modernising, healthy economy is a rise in Total Factor Productivity (TFP) growth. In China, although capital injection has been a source of growth for the economy, the greatest source of growth has been a 7-fold increase in TFP levels since 1970.  The effects the rise in TFP growth and steady, less volatile GDP growth have had have been tremendous. Billions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty (as defined by the common $1/day measurement) – and the eradication of poverty is now a very real possibility thanks to Chinese economic growth. While China is undoubtedly growing – it will most likely not overtake the United States as the dominant international economy in the next half-century. Although the country as a whole is rich, there are quite simply too many people for Chinese economic development to be considered equal to that of Western nations. In all per-capita rankings of world economies, China heavily lags behind because of the sheer number of citizens the country has. China also has heavily criticised banking problems, a problem exemplified in the number of non-performing loans (Gerald Segal claims it to be at or above 25%) the country’s banks hold.  Despite China’s, frankly, unparalled catch-up growth throughout the late-20th and early-21st centuries, the country is still decades – if not centuries – away from parity with the United States on per capita economic development and standard of living. Clearly, China should be seen by the United States as far more of an economic opportunity than an economic threat.
Politically, China is somewhat of an underperformer on the world stage. This is likely a policy decision by the Chinese government, as in recent years China has become noticeable more conciliatory with the West on certain key fronts. For instance, in the wake of recent tensions on the Korean peninsula, China has backed US-led Western pressure on the Kim-regime of North Korea. This marks a significant change in policy by China – once a major supporter/backer of the North Korean government. China has also backed off of scuttling United Nations resolutions that had once been seen as “temper tantrums”.  China, likely due to its communist roots, has been described by some as somewhat obsessed with autarky. The country does foray into the limelight of the world stage, but rarely does it purport to really want to be there. As Segal notes “China’s neighbours understand the need to get on with China but have no illusions China feels the same way.”  Further, China is often seen as unwilling to change or even acknowledge the human rights abuses taking place within its borders, “China does not yet wholly endorse global norms of conduct.”  To draw yet another schism between the political prominence of the United States and China, aid money still flows in large quantities to China. China itself still claims to be a developing country (the merits of this claim are disputed and many see this admission as a play by the Chinese government for the continuation of aid dollars).  Culturally, the influence of the Chinese is easily eclipsed by that of India. Bollywood films are shown throughout the world – in fact, the largest Bollywood awards ceremony is planned to be held in Toronto in the coming year. Chinese music, cinema, and cultural practices have proliferated far less than Indian culture. Even the spread of Chinese cuisine throughout the world can be traced to pre-revolutionary Western travellers adapting Chinese dishes to Western tastes (the most prominent example likely being General Tso’s Chicken). When compared to the political influence the United States holds internationally, it is clear that China has a long way to go before becoming a political threat to the United States.
China has an average military. The Chinese forces are better equipped and better trained than that of most of their Asian neighbours. However, when compared to Western countries (or even other Asian countries such as Japan), China can be considered a second-rate military power. Although seen by many as the regional, Asian hegemon – militarily, this is likely not the case. Recently, China has been in an ongoing dispute with Taiwan and Japan over the Senkaku islands of the South China Sea. Despite its claims over the island, China has not used military force in capturing the island chain. While Taiwan would likely find itself defeated by China over this dispute, it is unlikely that China could win against Japan – the country who has strategically placed arms on the island chain. China does hold, however, military advantage over “the new border states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and its economic presence in this region yields additional advantages”  On the technology front, China is still lagging well behind. The military technology they boast is nearly wholly comprised of poor reproductions of Western equipment. In recent weeks, China has released its own stealth fighter aircraft – a jet that can be best compared to an American aircraft from the 1970s.  Clearly, the Chinese are no more a military threat to the United States than India. Although many claim that China’s massive reserve force gives it an upperhand militarily, in modern warfare this means little. Compared with the United States, and in fact nearly any other Western power, China poses a very small threat to American interests as a whole. At best, China is a military nuisance.
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Despite China’s reputation as a major power, when examined carefully, one can see that China is, at best, a middle power. Although China is growing economically stronger every day, in terms of political influence, China still has much room for growth before being considered a threat to the United States. Even militarily, China’s lack of technology and military prowess holds it back from becoming a true regional hegemon and from posing a threat to the United States. Although depicted as the coming challenger to the United States’ dominance on the world stage, China still has a long way to go before it can be even considered a threat to the United States.
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