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The limits of China’s global power

April 15, 2023 at 1:15 pm

China’s President Xi Jinping. [Photo by KEVIN LAMARQUE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

China’s rise has been the talk of the global village, with its impressive economic performance, ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and frenzied diplomacy, ranging from the Ukraine conflict to Africa and the Gulf. But is there more to this “rising China” narrative?

Despite the oft-advertised strengths, China’s significant limitations often go unnoticed. Failures to appeal ideologically in the international arena and military disparities with the US are serious constraints.

Ideology matters

The significance of ideology cannot be overstated, especially when powers seek to exert their influence internationally that resonates with people from all walks of life. For example, the US has consistently tapped into the liberal lexicon when framing its interests, incorporating values such as freedom, liberty, human rights, democracy and the free market. This narrative has led millions to adhere to the American model in the post-WWII era.

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For instance, the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow was held during the height of the Cold War. The US leveraged the event to showcase its liberal and capitalist ideology. Beyond the flashy display of consumer goods, the exhibition also featured American cultural productions, including art, music and fashion, which embodied the progressive ideals of freedom of expression and creativity in a democratic society. While this event promoted American ideals, it created a shadow over the Soviet communist system.

When it comes to China, however, the situation is different. China’s official ideology, anathema for many, is communism. Although China’s contemporary references to Marxism and its unique form of socialism are more moderate than during the Maoist era, the constitutional foundation of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” remains intact. The Hu-Wen Administration (2002-2013) invested heavily in revising and reforming the CCP ideology by introducing the concepts like harmonious society and a scientific outlook on development. Xi Jinping has also sought to infuse cultural elements into his governance approach, as evidenced by his frequent references to civilisation and common prosperity.

Meanwhile, China is trying hard to appeal ideologically to the world via a set of values known as the “five principles of peaceful coexistence.” These principles include mutual respect, non-aggression, non-interference, equality and peaceful coexistence, underpinning Beijing’s interactions with other nations and fostering harmonious relations in the international arena.

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China’s ideological referencing attempts to match the US domination in this domain. But ideology is only one facet of this strategy. With millions of yuan strategically allocated to key geographies, China has already embarked on a bold mission to expand the appeal of its ideology by pumping huge sums of money into international development.

Despite ongoing criticism about “debt-trap diplomacy,” China’s BRI is a powerful instrument to convey the idea that economic success can be attained through traditional governance rather than relying on free market capitalism within the framework of Western liberalism.

Nevertheless, China’s approach still falls short of the US’s in establishing ideological supremacy. Recipient countries are keen on tangible returns on investment rather than mere ideological rhetoric. Moreover, freedom resonates stronger in people’s hearts.

Military might

As China ascends to potential superpower status, the world holds its breath. Can China measure up to the military superiority of the US? In 2023, Washington flexes its muscle with a jaw-dropping $797 billion spent on defence, dwarfing China’s $224 billion. But it is not just about the spending. The US maintains a dominant global presence with military bases and alliances spanning the globe, while China’s focus is primarily on the Asia-Pacific region, safeguarding its interests in the South China Sea and Taiwan.

The US touts a battle-tested military with 1.3 million active-duty personnel and 800,000 reserve personnel, but China boasts the world’s largest standing army with over two million active-duty personnel and 510,000 reserve personnel. Both countries possess nuclear deterrents, but the Central Intelligence Agency’s 2027 projection of a possible invasion of Taiwan adds complexity to this high-stakes comparison.

Since 1996, China has invested heavily in its air force, moving from a disadvantageous position to a superior posture. Conversely, numbers do not convey the complete picture when it comes to naval power. While China has more ships than the US, the numerical advantage does not necessarily translate into supremacy on the battlefield. The US Navy has a proven edge in distributed lethality, adept at scattering and moving forces to avoid being easy targets while maintaining coordinated attacks.

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However, in the high-stakes scenario of Taiwan, China’s A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) strategies could pose a formidable challenge, utilising anti-missiles, submarines, aircraft and other assets to limit or deny the US Navy’s operational freedom. Both sides have different strategies and technologies, and the outcome will be uncertain.

In the escalation scenario, the distance between the Chinese mainland and the island gives the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) an advantage in accessing the conflict zone faster than the US military. However, despite this geographical advantage, the gap in overall military power between China and the US is significant. China may have limited areas of military superiority in the initial stages, but this advantage diminishes as the conflict zone moves farther from the Chinese mainland and closer to territories that the US can access more easily. The retaliatory might of the US Army will be a game-changer. Equally vital to consider is the pivotal role of China’s ability to secure strategic partnerships in the high-stakes scenario of Taiwan.

From ideology to military might, China’s ascent is a captivating tale of ambition and assertiveness against the US-led liberal order. The extent to which Xi’s Chinese dream, combined with Beijing’s military ascent, may supplant the longstanding American dream of liberalism fortified with military edge serves as a litmus test for China to surpass the constraints facing its rise in the near future.

Burak Elmalı is a Deputy Researcher at TRT World Research Centre.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.