Superpower dreams interrupted
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Many Chinese people dream that their country will one day become
"number one". The dream is legitimate - as with any race, you want to win; or
in any economic competition, you want to outperform your competitors. This is
part of the nature of the capitalist system that has spread from the West to
countries all over the world.
In international politics, this competition has a delicate appendix involving
dangerous military matters.
Will China's military catch up with America's? And if so, when? Many
strategists in Beijing wonder about these questions, and
the main drive of the thinking is on China's economy.
When China's economy is big enough it will "naturally" sustain greater military
expenditures, and thus in due time it will outperform the US in military might.
There are some snags to this linear thinking. One is related to technological
advances: China lags behind America in many technological areas, and it is hard
to catch up.
The US might become economic "number two" but could well retain its
technological prominence in military matters for several decades after China
overtakes it economically. Still, even if China were to catch up in military
technology, one wonders whether it would have the intellectual freedom
necessary for the research innovation needed to manufacture effective and
ground-breaking technology that would lead Beijing to be a giant in this
sphere, as the US presently is.
These problems are all real, and Beijing might have some solutions. However,
the problems of China's military rise are possibly not solved by simple
projections of China's economic growth in future decades.
But first, let's assume that economic growth can take care of everything. One
can simply think that in 20 years, China's gross domestic product (GDP) may be
larger than America's. Then, because of its new economic might, China's
military could be in a position to overtake the US's, and China might think
this could happen in the following 10 or 20 years (around 2040-2050). Yet, even
then, by the middle of the century, China's military challenges would be far
China would still be alone against an alliance made of America plus European
countries, Japan, India and other Asian countries. All these states might
prefer to side with America and not with China in the event of military
Such a grouping would represent a technological, military and economic power
far bigger than China in the foreseeable future, even if we were to stretch
ourselves to the end of this century. China would not be able to take on all of
them, and in fact, in the next decades, China will have to rely heavily on US
involvement in the region to ease tensions with its neighbors. 
Could China grow stronger by about 2030-2040 and then replace America in this
broad pattern of alliances? To a certain extent, yes, but in the event of a
real military confrontation, this is most unlikely because all these countries
are scared of China's rise. This is because China is a newcomer, and thus
largely unpredictable. It is too big, growing too rapidly, and too ''new'' to
modern international diplomacy. But mostly, all of these countries are scared
because China's politics are not transparent and Beijing is not forthcoming
about its political decision-making because China is not, in one word,
If China is ever to become "number one", it would need first not a mighty and
technologically advanced military, but real allies and real friends - not
friends like North Korea or even Pakistan, a country that if pressed to choose
between China and America most likely now would still pick America. To have
friends, China has to become democratic, and while this would also not be a
total solution, it would be a necessary step.
Given the US's status, the road to greatness in China is bound to go through
some sort of political compromise and agreement with America. One difficulty in
this is that China will have to build its new friendship with America without
leaving other countries behind.
That is, China would have to build good ties with many countries that are
presently friends with America, as well as continue building ties with America.
Only if China can weave a complicated web of new political ties can it
realistically hope to become politically "number one" sometime after it becomes
economic "number one". And then it could be poised to naturally inherit the
US's reach in the world and its web of alliances.
This leaves a few open questions: what is the use of China's present military
build-up? Will the new Chinese weapons realistically be used to conquer Taiwan
or to impose its rule in the South China Sea? In the foreseeable future, China
could meet both goals, but if that were to happen, China would economically and
politically be suffocated immediately after the conquest. China knows it and
will try not to pursue this course, as it would end all its dreams at once.
But China's present tendency to not give up its military threat to Taiwan is
motivated by domestic reasons: the push of nationalists who have no real and
clear idea of the ways China could realistically become "number one".
Certainly, China's dream to become "number one" has many enemies, many of whom
call themselves Chinese. Take, for instance, the case of Mao Zedong. Some
Chinese neo-nationalists consider him the greatest Chinese hero of the past
century. However, his 30 years of political experiments stopped China's
economic growth for many decades.
At the end of World War II, Japan's and China's GDPs were at the same level. If
we take this as a standard, without Mao, China's GDP could have become
two-thirds of America's GDP by the late 1980s. If we more realistically take
Taiwan's GDP per capita as a standard of China's potential overall GDP growth,
China's economy could have overtaken that of America by the late 1970s.
These projections are debatable but are a useful intellectual exercise as from
here we can see that China, thanks to Mao, lost some 50 years of development.
Then, in retrospect, Mao was China's enemies' best friend, and at present the
best weapon China's enemies could invent would be to create a second Mao.
This thought could perhaps become important in the next couple of years, as
China is readying itself to put in power a batch of new rulers coming from the
ultra-Maoist experience. The Chinese rulers after the 2012 Communist Party
Congress will likely all be former Red Guards, and thus they will have
experienced firsthand the disasters of the times when China lost ground. Yet
they might also have an important Maoist mindset: "wu tian, wu fa" ("no
heaven, no law"), open to all possibilities and daring to do anything in the
best interests of their country.