China Superpower

In the 21st century, no force has seemed capable of halting China's incredible economic growth, propelled by a population of 1.4 billion. Militarily, however, China lags far behind the world's sole superpower, the US. Will competition with the West drive China to global dominance? If so, China will gain a status it has not had since the Ming Dynasty of the 1600s, when it was the world's prominent power.

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Table of contents

    China: New World Superpower?

    A superpower is a country that dominates the globe militarily, culturally, politically, and economically. After the decline of the British Empire and other colonial states in the early 1900s, Germany and Japan briefly rose to superpower status, but were destroyed by wars. After World War II, the Soviet Union (USSR) and the US rose to superpower status as the two main protagonists of the Cold War. The USSR collapsed in 1991, leaving a weakened Russia and the ever-more-powerful US. By the 2020s, this had not changed, as the US's military budget was as large as the next ten countries combined, its economy was still the leader in the world, and it was the head of the rejuvenated NATO, on the edge of a 'New Cold War.'

    But the US's status had several challengers: the emerging superpowers of China, India, and Russia.

    The Emerging Superpowers are countries on the cusp of global dominance, though the road to this dominance has been marked increasingly by military confrontations. While Russia's and India's statuses as emerging superpowers are debatable, China's role as the next dominant superpower seems to be right around the corner. China's rapid military expansion and unceasing economic growth, and its prioritizing of the retaking of Taiwan, suggest that the US and its allies may soon come to blows with China and its allies.

    China As A Superpower: Case Study

    There are seven ways China exerts its power:

    1. Physical Size & Geographical Position

    In land area, China is the fourth largest country in the world and straddles East Central Asia, with South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea coasts. China stretches from the northern temperate zone to the tropics in the south, and from well-watered and fertile plains in the east to vast deserts and the highest mountains in the world in the west.

    China has land borders and numerous border disputes with 14 other nations. It can and does exercise its cultural, economic, and military might as soft power and hard power, in bordering zones such as Myanmar, the Himalayas (Bhutan, for example), Afghanistan, and so forth.

    China's strategic position gives it access to the sea and global trade routes to Europe and the Americas, as well as maritime borders with many other nations. Furthermore, China borders Russia to the north and northwest, a strong ally.

    China Superpower, Pudong Shanghai, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Pudong, Shanghai, symbol of China's emerging economic might

    2. Economic Power and Influence

    China has undergone rapid economic expansion since 1979, sustaining some of the fastest growth rates ever seen, with an average of 10% per year over several decades. Since the beginning of the Open Door Policy in 1979, which introduced the country to foreign investment, its GDP has grown from US$ 178 billion to US$ 14.72 trillion to make it the world's 2nd largest economy, only after the US.

    China's sole political actor, the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), steers all significant economic activity through centralized planning and 5-year plans. While allowing capitalism and free enterprise to thrive, the CPC maintains a financial stake in foreign investments in the country, while pursuing an aggressive export agenda.

    China's low cost of labour means it is a favoured location for international companies to locate, and its cheap goods have flooded the world. At the same time, China's flourishing middle and upper classes form the world's largest market for cars, smartphones, and other expensive goods. This means that companies that locate in China get increasingly wealthy by selling their products on the Chinese market.

    All in all, China is regaining the global economic influence over wealthy as well as impoverished nations (more on that below) that it once had centuries ago.

    3. Demographic Factors

    China's huge population and economic chaos in the early years after the rise to power of the CPC in 1948 led to the one-child policy (until 2016), then to the two-child policy (until 2021), but these backfired. Now there is a '3-child policy.' Eventually, a nation of single children attended by two parents and four grandparents is becoming a reality, making the country a demographic time-bomb.

    China now has one of the fastest-growing ageing populations in the world, with 28% of its population expected to be over 60 in 2040. In comparison, the equivalent statistic for India is 13%. Though demographic control policies have effectively ended, it may be too late, as many projections show not only that the country will not be able to effectively afford to take care of its elderly, but also that there will not be enough young people for the labour force.

    4. Political factors

    The CPC under Xi Xinping has tightened its grip on Chinese political activity and cultural expression, and since 2010 has evolved rapidly into a totalitarian surveillance state that tolerates no disagreement. This has led to crackdowns on minority ethnic groups such as the Uighurs and Tibetans that Western observers claim are effectively cases of genocide. Major capitalists and billionaires, such as the CEOs of principal corporations, have often been jailed and/or stripped of power (such as Jack Ma), while the 'Great Firewall' has made Chinese access to foreign media nearly impossible.

    The COVID-19 pandemic led to the pioneering of 'lockdowns,' including the 60 million people in Hunan province, where the disease originated. Later lockdowns, such as that in Shanghai in 2022, demonstrated the formidable power of the CPC to completely control human activity. However, domestic economic stresses as well as growing and open hostile verbal and military confrontation with the US and its allies, leave open the question of whether Xi's control of the CPC will continue unabated.

    5. Cultural influence

    China's strict control of cultural expression has resulted in few cultural 'soft power' exports - China, instead, has been an importer of culture from countries that have freedom of expression, particularly Japan, South Korea, and the US. All these imports are either illegal and accessed via Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), or heavily censored. For example, NBA basketball is very popular in China, but no anti-China pronouncements by the players or owners are permitted. Hollywood movies have all references to Taiwan as an independent country, and numerous other sensitive topics, censored. In recent years, Hollywood movies have been filmed in China, though this has mostly ended with Covid-19.

    6. Access to natural resources

    China sits on top of large deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas. Its northwestern province, Xinjiang, is rich in natural resources. A primary reason the Uighur population it is tightly controlled is because of historical moves by the Uighurs to break from China. The CPC cannot allow this to happen, as it cannot afford the resources that would be lost if the territory were lost.

    China is one of the world's largest producers and exporters of aluminium, gold, iron, magnesium, and other metals, including rare earths. This is due to China's direct access to reserves in Africa, where in recent years they have gained mineral rights in many countries. China has also built an oil pipeline to Kazakhstan, its neighbor to the northwest and one of the world's largest producers. China's main strength in terms of resource access may be its growing alliance with Russia, a country also now at odds with the West, with boundless reserves of minerals as well as timber and other products.

    Check out China-Africa to learn more about their growing relationship

    China's Military Strength

    The 7th and last aspect of China's emerging superpower status is its military strength, and this is arguably the most important. China has the world's largest army, with 2.8 million active troops, and the highest military budget after the US, US$ 237 billion (the US is around US$ 730 billion). China's nuclear arsenal is growing rapidly, as is its inventory of tanks, warships, planes, and aircraft carriers.

    China utilizes its military in many land- and sea-based border disputes. Most recently, it has engaged in a stand-off, with several bloody clashes, with India, in the Himalayas. China's principal military goals are to secure its claims on its land and sea borders, to retake Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province, and control the South China Sea.

    China has been rapidly gaining military access to Pacific island nations and is increasingly confrontational not only with the US but also a re-arming Japan, UK, and Australia.

    China superpower what countries spend StudySmarter

    Fig. 2 - What countries spend on their militaries (2019)

    China has claims on the South China Sea. Decolonization led to overlapping claims based on conflicting maritime laws and the various traditions and customs of newly independent countries in the region, and their fishing fleets. These overlapping claims now include the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, and of course, mainland China, the only country to effectively claim the entire region.

    The core conflicts are the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) around these areas, not just for fishing rights but also for the extraction of natural resources. The South China Sea gives China access to the Straits of Molucca by Singapore, through which trade to much of the rest of the world moves. China cannot afford to lose control over the South China Sea.

    China As An Emerging Market

    The global emerging middle class threatens scarce resources such as water, food, and crude oil (check out our explanations Demand for Resources and Resource Management Geography to learn more!).

    China's incredible economic growth has led to an enormous middle class of educated and prosperous consumers. Its middle-class population grew, according to official figures, from 39 million in 2000 to 700 million in 2020, though many of these are at the bottom end, having been reclassified as 'middle class' from poverty by a change in the way that the CPC measures poverty. By all accounts, there are at least as many truly prosperous middle-class Chinese as there are middle-class Americans.

    As China becomes more prosperous, its resource consumption increases rapidly. This is good news for the economies of countries that export to China, though it also creates additional strains. Brazil has boomed thanks to the Chinese demand for soybeans and iron, and the US has also benefited greatly from China's demand. As mentioned above, foreign countries based in China, such as Tesla, not only take advantage of China's cheap cost of labor and near-absolute control over its workers, but also gain access to the lucrative Chinese consumer market.

    However, there are many negatives. Energy is needed to power all this growth, so coal and the pollution it brings is a major contaminant. By relying on foreign sources for food and being unable to feed itself,

    Water consumption is another problem- in Beijing alone, demand exceeded supply by 70% in 2012. Control of Tibet is key in this respect since the plateau is the birthplace of the Yangtze and other rivers that China relies on.

    Other environmental stresses that China places on itself as well as the countries it imports from are deforestation, desertification, contamination of air, soil, and water, destruction of wetlands, and biodiversity loss.

    China has recently become the largest CO2 emitter in the world, producing at least 27% of global emissions. While China has endeavoured to lower its coal consumption and automobile emissions, two factors driving these figures, it is having difficulty doing so without damaging its economic growth.

    China's Impact On The Global Economy

    China's emergence as a superpower seemed inevitable as recently as the 2010s, but the 'New Cold War' between Russia and China and their allies on one side, and the US and its allies on the other, threatens this future. Neither side is backing down, and the use of nuclear weapons is now openly mentioned by high-level politicians on both sides.

    COVID-19 showed the world the weakness of depending on China economically, since most supply chains for the goods the world depends on are connected to the country. Also, the threat of China as a source of world-crippling pandemics and the increasing hostility of the CPC toward capitalist enterprises and billionaires are factors that may produce economic isolation for the country. Finally, China's ageing population and lack of effective immigration policies puts it at a disadvantage when compare to (relatively) liberal policies in other parts of the world, and much more youthful populations elsewhere.

    China Superpower - Key Takeaways

    • China is an emerging superpower, but whether it attains full superpower status depends on several strategic factors, particularly the outcome of a potential war to retake Taiwan
    • China is allied with Russia in a 'New Cold War' with the US and its Western allies, which include Japan and Australia in the region
    • China's strengths as an emerging superpower include its massive population and economy and its growing military, as well as the power of the Chinese Communist Party to control dissent
    • China's economy grew at unprecedented rates since 1979, but an ageing population, resource dependency, environmental costs, and the effects of Covid-19 place future economic strength in doubt
    • China's claim to the entirety of the South China Sea has put it at odds with numerous other countries over access to fishing rights, trade routes, and natural resources.


    1. Fig. 2: Military expenditure ( by SIPRI ( licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about China Superpower

    How did China become a superpower?

    China may be on the way to superpower status by virtue of its physical size and geographic position, economic power and influence, political factors, access to natural resources, and military might.

    Why will China not be the next superpower?

    Many believe that China will not attain true superpower status because of its ageing population and attendant economic issues, and because of a potentially unfavorable outcome if the 'New Cold War' turns hot in Taiwan.

    What makes China a superpower?

    China is not yet a superpower, but because its population is the largest in the world, its economy is number 2 and still growing, and its military is rapidly growing, if it can avoid war with the US and other countries and solve its demographic problem, it is likely to attain this status.

    Is China a military superpower?

    China has the world's largest army of 2.8 million active troops and 2nd highest military budget after the US. While not a global superpower, China uses this military might to control its own population (e.g., in Xinjiang), control its contested borders, project power in the South China Sea, make agreements with Pacific Island nations, and make moves towards retaking Taiwan.

    Why is China a superpower?

    China is not yet a superpower, but because its population is the largest in the world, its economy is number 2 and still growing, and its military is rapidly growing, if it can avoid war with the US and other countries and solve its demographic problem, it is likely to attain this status.

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    Team China Superpower Teachers

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