James Ridley-Jones is a PhD student at King’s College London currently researching Geostrategy in Central Asia. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title: Assessing China as a Superpower

Date Originally Written:  June 14, 2022.

Date Originally Published:  June 20, 2022.   

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a PhD student studying Foreign Policy in Central Asia. The author believes that perception plays a key role in global power structures. The article is written from the point of view of the international community toward Chinese power.

Summary:  The Russian invasion of Ukraine exposed the gap between how the world assessed Russia’s might and influence and its actual performance.  Prior to a conflict, “power perceived is power achieved” is common.  When looking at China’s might and influence, and taking into account recent revelations during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, questions remain regarding what China can actually achieve in the long run.  

Text:  From a global power perspective the conflict in Ukraine taught the United States a significant lesson about reality comparative to perception. Russia was perceived to be a significant challenge to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces militarily, an economic influencer to Europe even if not the predominant economy, and a country with global influence across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, across Asia, and even holding some influence in South America. The reality is that although Russia is still considered a challenge in these areas, the challenge is not to the level believed prior to the conflict in Ukraine. This assessment however does not look to debate on Russia, their actions, capabilities or intentions, but rather to question if a superpower needs to possess such things, or just be perceived to possess such attributes, all in relation to China.

When considering military might, China is often assessed to be a significant player on potential capabilities. China has the largest military in the world, are significantly developing their technological capabilities, advancing new training programs, and reorganising their command structures. These changes demonstrate that China perceives problems within its military however, institutional change does not always guarantee success. China’s evolving military capabilities come with a host of their own problems and questions, not all of which there is evidence of resolutions. With growth comes organisation issues, technology requires application, and there is no demonstrated successful application of some technologies China might be developing. All of these problems plague even the most successful of militaries, but that doesn’t detract from these problems as considerations, especially given China’s more significant nature i.e. its size and development. Also evident is the limited combat experience of the Chinese military.  The last full conflict the Chinese military fought was against Vietnam in 1979 with limited experience beyond that other than peacekeeping missions and occasional sparring with the Indian military in the Himalayas, China lacks modern conflict experience[2].

Even with these military considerations, China prefers to employ economic and Soft Power, which merits consideration when envisioning China as a superpower.

When looking at the Chinese economy, the slowdown is a factor to consider. Chinese economic strength presently affords them significant sway globally.  If this economic strength were to slowdown, it is questionable as to whether China’s sway would continue to the same degree. Although there are considerably debated variables in the literature, Riikka Nuutilainen and Jouko Rautava suggest that as China’s economic growth slows, its contribution to Russia’s growth performance will likely decline as well[2]. Although their study is specific to Russia, it is more widely indicative of the potential impact to other countries of a withdrawal of Chinese investment, purchasing of raw materials, and slowing energy demand. If this slowdown were to happen, given Chinese utilization of such mechanisms for diplomatic engagement, there would be noticeable knock on effects.

In South America, Chinese economic relations and diplomatic positioning in the region has had an effect. Both the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua most recently flipped their positions toward Taiwan after being offered financial incentives by China, including loans and infrastructure investments[3]. In this case a Chinese economic incentive has led to enough diplomatic pressure being exerted to change national relationships between several nations, specifically in South America, with Taiwan. These cases demonstrate that economic might can be wielded successfully as a tool to exert influence.

Another example case is Serbia, where Chinese economic power is perceived to be significant in the country, comparative to the reality. Forty percent of Serbians think that China gives the country the most aid of all those that contribute, when in actuality China is not even close to giving significant amounts of aid[4]. Of the 56 million Euros that China has pledged to Serbia since 2009, only 6.6 million has actually been delivered, which is significantly less that the European Union, who has given 1.8 billion, or even Germany who has given 189 million[5]. Although a specific case,  Serbia demonstrates that perceptions of Chinese economic influence and power are significantly higher than actuality.

In Central Asia, it is assumed that Chinese investment has had significant affect, but often this is not to the extent that is perceived as Chinese Soft Power fails to connect with the wider population beyond the national elites[6]. This Chinese failure demonstrates a lack of influence at a different level to government and could potentially have a significant impact over time should it not be addressed. Such failures merit review in other regions of the world as part of a wider understanding of actual Chinese global influence compared to the U.S. current view of it.

Given the changing nature of the Chinese economy from a production based manufacturing economy to a more consumer based economy, it is questionable as to whether the country will be able exert similar pressure as a customer and consumer, rather than its current position as a producer and investor.

U.S. current assessments of Chinese potential as a superpower is based heavily on perceptions of potential Chinese exertion of power with limited cases of exertion, rather than necessarily them having that actual power. South America illustrates successful economic influence, but to what extent is it perception based similarly to the case of Serbia, such details are currently lacking.

Whilst remaining cautious in order to not underestimate Chinese capabilities in any of their foreign policy, it is important to analyse more closely Chinese accomplishments to obtain a better understanding of Chinese potential in becoming a superpower, both to ensure a better position to challenge Chinese actions as well as to cooperate where possible.


[1] Blasko, D. (2015). Ten Reasons Why China Will Have Trouble Fighting a Modern War – War on the Rocks. War on the Rocks. Retrieved 8 June 2022, from https://warontherocks.com/2015/02/ten-reasons-why-china-will-have-trouble-fighting-a-modern-war/. 

[2] Nuutilainen, R., & Rautava, J. (2019). Russia and the slowdown of the Chinese economy [Ebook] (2nd ed.). Bank of Finland, BOFIT. Retrieved 8 June 2022, from https://helda.helsinki.fi/bof/bitstream/handle/123456789/16551/bpb0220.pdf.

[3] Roy, D. (2022). China’s Growing Influence in Latin America. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved 8 June 2022, from https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-influence-latin-america-argentina-brazil-venezuela-security-energy-bri. 

[4] Institute for Economic Affairs, 2020 in Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. (2020). Who Gives The Most Aid To Serbia? [Image]. Retrieved 8 June 2022, from https://www.rferl.org/a/who-gives-the-most-aid-to-serbia-/30660859.html. 

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ridley-Jones, J. (2020). Assessing the Development of Chinese Soft Power in Central Asia. Divergent Options. Retrieved 8 June 2022, from https://divergentoptions.org/2020/09/23/an-assessment-of-the-development-of-chinese-soft-power-in-central-asia/.