Why China isn’t ready to be a global leader
Deng Yuwen says a quick study of the attributes of a superpower – in terms of its economy, military and idealogy, for example – shows China is nowhere near ready to take over the mantle of global leadership
Since America’s inward shift after Donald Trump came to power, discussions about China taking the baton to become the leader of global free trade have appeared in the media. China itself, it seems, is finding it difficult to stay aloof from the clamour. Some Chinese scholars go further, advocating that China should step up to lead on global issues, replacing the US.
We live in a world dominated by these two countries, as the summit meeting between Trump and President Xi Jinping (習近平) makes clear. Since his election, Trump has met the leaders of Japan, Britain and Germany, all US allies. China, by contrast, is neither friend nor foe. Considering Trump’s antagonism towards China in the first days of his presidency, the fact that the two leaders are meeting earlier rather than later underlines the weight accorded to China by the US.
It would surprise no one if China does harbour ambitions of becoming a global leader. As a matter of fact, isn’t that the role of a rising power, to challenge the current No 1 so as to replace it?
Nevertheless, no nation becomes a world leader just by wishing for it; it needs first to develop real strength. A country that ascended to global prominence before its time will invariably fall from its perch.
History tells us that an aspiring global leader must fulfil several conditions before it can succeed. If these conditions are not met, it had better back off.
First, economic power, which is the foundation of all other conditions. Only when a country has a strong enough economy and a broad domestic market can it become a marketplace for the rest of the world, for both raw materials and finished goods. In this way, economic dependence grows. This is crucial. Before the UK and the US became world leaders, they were, in their time respectively, the world’s premier economic power. Without a solid economy and market, a country may become a world leader for a while, but never for long.
Second, military power. This is hard power, and a pillar for hegemony. A country’s economic strength can only go so far. In fact, a country with a strong economy but weak military may even be bullied by the major powers. One example is the Song dynasty in ancient China. A study of history will show that no hegemony has ever existed without military strength; in fact, many hegemonic powers won their place in the battlefield.
Third, ideology and values. This is soft power, and equally necessary to a global leader. A country can claim leadership with just economic and military power, but not for long. In the past, powerful countries suffered a cataclysmic decline because their values failed to resonate with the rest of the world. Ideology and values serve as the lubricant of a hegemon, because they persuade people to buy in to the system. This is particularly important in today’s world, where universal values are rooted deeply in people’s minds.
Fourth, the ability to provide public goods. A world leader needs to provide public goods to be recognised as such. The public goods here mainly refer to the international system and the global order, and the rules to uphold them. The US is a leading power today not only because it led the Allied powers to victory in the second world war, but also because it helped to create and maintain a set of global institutions, as represented by the United Nations, and laid the basic foundations for the current global order.
Fifth, alliances. Even a supremely strong country will find it difficult to maintain the global order and its own pre-eminence in the long run by itself. So the forging of allies is critical. One reason the United States and Soviet Union became leaders of the Western and Eastern hemispheres respectively during the cold war was that they each had their own alliance: Nato for the US; the Warsaw Treaty Organisation for the Soviet Union. The Warsaw grouping broke up, so did the USSR.
Lastly, opportunity and luck also play a part. If an opportunity to rise to the top comes along and a would-be global leader fails to seize it, it may have to wait a long time for a second chance.
Of these conditions, the first three are basic and essential to the making of a global leader. Without any one of these conditions, even if a country rose to the top by luck, it won’t stay there for long. The fourth and fifth conditions strengthen global leadership. The last condition seems insignificant, but in historical moments can prove decisive.
Based on these criteria, China is years away from being ready to take over the mantle of global leadership. Its economy is already the second-largest in the world, to be sure, and it has enjoyed exceptional growth in recent years. China is also the top destination for exports from some countries. But its economy is not the largest in the world yet – and still only a little more than half the size of America’s. Economically, China is near, but not there yet.
As for its military, China has some way to go. Its military has made major progress in recent years, but its naval exploits are so far still restricted to the near seas.
What about its ideology and values? While China does have its own values, they would be a hard sell around the globe. This means China’s development model does not enjoy wide recognition. This is a huge weakness for any would-be world leader.
In addition, China’s public goods provision is very limited. In fact, it would be fair to say it has done little apart from sending some peacekeeping troops abroad and extending some help to developing countries, such as those in Africa. The resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, through the six-party talks which Beijing was spearheading, could have been a major public good. But, unfortunately, that diplomatic effort has now stalled. Meanwhile, the China-driven Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is still finding its feet and any positive spillover effects from infrastructure investments have yet to be felt.
As for alliances, China barely has any. Although China has some real allies like Pakistan, they are too few. China’s insistence on sticking to a non-aligned policy and its principle of non-interference has hindered the establishment of alliances.
Finally, luck has not come calling, and Trump’s policies do not provide favourable conditions for China to rise as a world leader.
To conclude, China does have the potential to be a world leader. But based on the current situation, it still needs more than a decade, at least, to meet the first three conditions, assuming the pace of its development does not drastically slow, and moderate modifications can be made to its ideology.
So, instead of forcing itself into the leading position, China should calm down a little and focus on developing and improving its own nation first.
Deng Yuwen is a researcher at the Charhar Institute think tank