World superpowers and China

by Editorial

We have seen many civilisations: Greek, Persian, Chinese, Indus Valley, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Roman, Islamic, Mayan, Inca and more. Similarly, many great empires have risen and fallen—the Ottoman, Persian, Spanish, Hapsburgs, Arab, Mauryan, Mughal, the Tang dynasty. However, the world has seen only five superpowers. Mongol and Roman empires in ancient times. The British empire, the USSR and the US in modern times. What is a superpower? The term is contextually used with different meanings. Holistically, superpowers possess military, technological and economic might, vastly superior to others. They have global capacities to steer, influence and shape events. Their power projection could be simultaneous in multiple locations. The power could be economic, military, technological or “soft” (diplomatic, political and cultural). A superpower should be able to dominate other countries and ward off challenges. It cannot be ignored on the world stage. Without its cooperation no world problem can be solved.

The Emerging Competition: The US is striving to retain superpower status. China is striving to surpass the US. The Pandemic has parachuted into this competition to throw a spanner in the works. In this context it is necessary to evaluate if China can realize its ambitions? What are the threats and opportunities? These questions will trouble us; particularly in India.  An overview of superpowers – past and present indicates where China is heading. 

 Past Superpowers

The Roman Empire. It was the first superpower. It was founded in 27 BC and lasted five centuries (probably the longest superpower). Illustrious emperors/ dictators like Caesar, Augustus, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius’ and decadent ones like Nero, Caligula and Tiberius ruled it. It held sway over the Middle East and Europe, ruling most major population centres and contemporary civilizations including Greece, Egypt, the Levant, Carthage, Anatolia and Italy. Its footprint covered over 60 million people. Roman legions, famed for military dominance, laid  the foundations of the Empire.  Persia, the only real competitor of the time, was repeatedly ravaged. The Roman Empire was distinguished for many intellectual accomplishments – Law, City Planning, Architecture and Roads. Roads promoted commerce, agriculture, mail delivery, pedestrian traffic, and military movements. City planning was all about hygiene with plumbing, sewage disposal, dams, and aqueducts. Roman architecture is still famed for its lavishness and planning. The period is also significant for the birth of two major religions – Christianity and Islam. One within the Roman Empire and other on its periphery.  Rome ultimately fell due to internal factors like civil war and economic depredations.

The Mongol Empire. It was the world’s largest land empire. Just a million Mongols conquered vastly larger populations and empires. It was not a unitary empire as normally envisaged but a vast agglomeration of widely different territories held together by military domination. Military prowess propelled it to superpower status. Its all-conquering military machine was based on outstanding tactics, mobility, utilization of the technology of the conquered peoples and logistics. As each state along the Silk Road was conquered, the empire expanded.  The Silk Road was the economic backbone of the Mongols.  From 1206 till about 1294, Genghis Khan and his heirs ruled an empire that included most of Eurasia, much of the Middle East, parts of Eastern Europe, China and Russia. At its peak it stretched from the Danube to the Sea of Japan  and from the Arctic to Camboja, covering over 22% of the Earth’s land area. It held sway over 100 million people. It is often referred to as the” Mongol World Empire”.

The British Empire.  The first modern day superpower where economic, military and soft power were equal constituents. It was founded on colonies and trading posts established in the 16th/17th centuries. The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates, and other territories ruled or administered by UK. Its political, linguistic and cultural legacy still e n d u r e s t h r o u g h t h e Commonwealth.  It was the largest empire and foremost global power for over a century. In 1922, it controlled 1/4th the world’s population over 1/4th of Earth’s landmass. In the  empire there was sunlight throughout at some place or the other. That is why the “sun never set” in the British Empire. It had the largest military of all times. Its military power was based on a powerful Navy with which it could strike and control strategic chokepoints—Suez, Malacca, Aden, Hormuz, Gibraltar. It enabled unfettered trade and made UK enormously wealthy. In 1870, it had the largest percentage of world GDP (35.9%).  In 1938, it still had the second largest GDP after the USA. It was insulated and unassailable by continental powers with the Atlantic on one side and the English Channel on the other. WW1 heralded the collapse of the British Empire. It was completed by WW2.  

 The Soviet Union. USSR was the briefest superpower. It was founded on the erstwhile Russian Empire. It rose to be a superpower at the end of the WW2. It disintegrated due to the Cold War with USA. The intervening four decades witnessed global bipolarity whose poles were capitalism and communism. USSR was huge and difficult to knock out as Napoleon and Hitler discovered. The expansive resource-rich landmass fulfilled Mackinder’s Heartland Theory – whoever controlled the Eurasian heartland could control Eurasia and thus the world. It rivalled the US militarily, technologically, economically and in soft power. Communism, its defining ideology,  propelled it to superpower status and ultimately caused its demise. Communist ideology propagated by USSR was global and included China also. Russia, its successor state inherited USSR’s global influence.  Russia is still a power but falls short of being a superpower since it could not reinvent itself as the US has repeatedly done.  

 Present Superpower

USA is the current superpower. It has a huge population,  an enormous continental-sized resourcerich territory located on two oceans.    It has been unassailable barring two brief times — Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and 9/11 strikes on Twin Towers. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it has enjoyed conventional military dominance in air, sea or land. Its Navy can control all the world’s major sea routes and choke points. It operates 516 military installations in 41 countries around the world, including 42 that are large or medium-size bases. It has extensive alliances including the NATO, Anzus Pact, bilateral military agreements with Japan and South Korea, and the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance between the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Economically it is very strong and is home to a significant proportion of the world’s GDP. Its currency is the reserve currency of the world. It has the trust of most rich and affluent nations. That makes its economic power non-finite and non-territorial. The US has leveraged technology in every walk of life as a currency of power. Its forays into space, nuclear and information spaces are pioneering. Technology turned it from an energy-neutral to an energy surplus nation. It wields enormous soft power which it projects it through its culture, educational system, political affiliations, aid programs, overseas bases, Hollywood and its huge network of MNCs. Most importantly it has been able to reinvent itself after every setback to emerge stronger: Be it economic setbacks like depression of the 1930s or the global meltdown of 2008 or military setbacks like the Pearl Harbour or Twin Tower attacks. It has been able to ward off competition from the USSR and emerge bigger. It is currently in a debilitated state economically due to the corona virus and is under severe threat from China. Will it stage a recovery as it has always done?  One thing for sure even if does stage a recovery, its economic dominance would have eroded. The other thing for sure is that its military, diplomacy and technology power are still intact. These could leverage its economy back to dominance. Do not count it out.


China’s ambition is to be the undisputed No. 1 superpower. The Chinese were expected to overtake the US as the world No. 1 power by 2050. However, coronavirus has put in sharp focus a number of issues. Let us take see them.

  China has an unfavourable Military Geography—continental size, poor resources, assailable from all directions (The Great Wall is testimony) with constricted ocean access. Its military must defend the nation, prop the Party up, parry competitors and control international choke points and gates. China needs an outsized military with international presence. The past few months revealed two things. One. Chinese military power has serious limitations. It does not have superpower capabilities. Two. Core military power still counts to become a superpower. Power flows from the barrel of a gun. Did Mao not say that? India has stopped it in its tracks in Ladakh and the US has bottled it in South China Sea. All its military gambits have strategically failed. Its reach lies exposed. Outposts are vulnerable. Internal issues like Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan are termites. Its military needs greater teeth to be a superpower. Bridging the chasm demands huge investment.  

 China is betting on its economy to attain superpower status. Despite a high GDP, per-capita GDP is low. Population is aging. The state must guarantee prosperity to people in return for sacrificed freedoms. All superpower populations had affluent lifestyles (barring the USSR which collapsed). China needs huge revenues internally. BRI is its gambit to control international trade, expand the economic footprint, develop dependencies and achieve world domination. It is a mega combination of the US’ foreign aid programs, the Mongol Empire’s Silk Route and the British Empire model of establishing trading posts prior to colonisation. However, the Virus has paralysed the BRI and exposed its noxious underbelly—usurious loans, debt traps, one sided projects et al. Overall being a superpower is an expensive business with huge external expenditure. The economy will have to generate lot of cash.  In the current environment of relocation of manufacturing, unacceptability of Chinese financial systems, longevity of the Virus and the overall geopolitical developments, there are severe headwinds ahead.  

To adjudicate on international matters China needs to generate trust. However, it is emerging as the root cause in many disputes. Its reputation on IPR theft and technology transfer is horrendous. China displays selfishness with no concept of ‘Global Commons’. It has blatantly repudiated international treaties, law and a rules based order (South China Sea and in Hong Kong) and not lived up to promises. More than alienation it has generated hate in many countries.

Overall, when one sees it in the backdrop of history, China does not have the grandeur of Romans, the military machine of the Mongols, the ideology of the erstwhile USSR, the Navy of the British or the unassailable expanse and contribution to mankind of the US. They might be aiming to better everyone. They might achieve many things but seem unable to scale their symbol of pride: The Great Wall of China. It has fostered psychological isolation- Mao’s self-imposed international isolation, the current regime’s Great Internet and Information Firewall, diplomatically created geopolitical isolation and the Han exclusion of other Chinese ethnicities. A psychologically isolated superpower without allies or friends (historically) is difficult to imagine.

China must have phenomenal economic growth to become a superpower. It appears to be recovering well despite the pandemic. However it is early days. The huge variables are the Virus, Unprecedented floods in its core industrial belt, drought and food shortages, job losses due to industry closures, global determination in decoupling/relocation and geopolitical isolation—all reported by Chinese media. The chances of economic dominance do not look bright.

Net Outcomes

It would be fair to say that the days of a unipolar world are over. We are entering a world of multi-polarity. The US will be a large pole which will strive to recover its economic mojo while everything else intact. China might be a large economic pole striving for everything else. There will be budding poles like EU, India, Japan and ASEAN. All one can say—the Global Pivot is to the East and the competition is on!

Lt Gen P.R. Shankar was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Dept of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. His other articles can be read on his blog www.

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