Questioning the Rise of China

In his classic essay “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers”, Historian Paul Kennedy explained that “so far as the International System is concerned, economic strength and military strength are always relative and should be seen as such”. Hence, “the international balance can never be still, and it is a folly of statesmanship to assume that they ever would be”.

In the last two decades, the slow decline of US influence around the world seems to confirm Paul Kennedy’s studies. Military overstretch and economic decadence have slowly diminished US power around the world, turning the world of G-1 into the world of G-20.

In this context, many authors are claiming that China will slowly become the main global power, replacing the United States and bringing authoritarianism back to the center of the International System. According to several studies, China could overtake the United States as the leading economy in the world in less than five years (1).

However, as Ian Bremmer has recently pointed out, “there is a good deal of turmoil simmering beneath the surface of China’s miracle” (2). Regardless of the impressive numbers that always make the headlines, the fact is that China is also facing serious structural problems that will slow complicate the growth of Asia’s economic powerhouse.

Among those issues, we can consider the following four points:

–  Its current model of economic growth will become unsustainable over time. Keeping the yuan at artificially low levels is not a long-term strategy.

–  Its population is slowly experiencing a demographic collapse. Harvard University Professor Nicholas Eberstadt has explained that “an incredible surge in senior citizens” will challenge China’s rise.

–  Its lack of basic individual rights will eventually collapse. “State capitalism” is not a sustainable model for the future: freedom and democracy are necessary components of every healthy free-market economy.

–  Its geopolitical relevance will not come unchallenged. China’s influence is countered by several Asian countries, including India, Japan, Vietnam or South Korea.

China has now become a key strategic player, but its role in the International System is far from guaranteed (3).

Written by Diego Sánchez de la Cruz, alumnus of the Master in International Relations (MIR)