Nov. 19, 2012

Scholars agree: China is not a superpower

Jason Koski/University Photography
Moderator Allen Carlson, left, and Aaron Friedberg of Princeton University discuss whether or not China has become a superpower during the "China as World Superpower" panel discussion Nov. 14 in Biotech.
Jason Koski/University Photography
David Lampton of John Hopkins University addresses the panel.

The rise of China as an economic, diplomatic and military power generated worldwide ambivalence and unease, particularly from the United States and neighboring countries in Asia, said panelists Nov. 14.

In this year's Lund Critical Debate, political scientists Aaron Friedberg of Princeton University and David Lampton of John Hopkins University discussed China's ascension in international trade diplomacy and whether these strengths would transform the country into a superpower.

"The short answer to this question in my view is not yet, though it can become one," said Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs.

A superpower is strong across all of the dimensions of power: economic, military and political, and has a global impact, he said. "By these standards, China is not yet a superpower. Its strengths are largely economic. It is not, however, capable of projecting military power on a global scale."

Lampton, professor and director of China studies, said that China is a rising power, but, "Superpower is not the right way to think about China." A superpower and its Cold War usage, he said, refers to the United States and its Soviet adversary, measured by the capacity to destroy the world multiple times.

Possessing fewer than 400 warheads in contrast to the United States' approximately 1,500, "China has never sought to achieve a nuclear arsenal that is even remotely evocative of the Cold War," Lampton said. "Their aspiration is to become a comprehensive global power with a balanced portfolio of economic, military and diplomatic power."

"The mere word 'superpower' rolls the intellectual dice in the direction of conflict, not cooperation," Lampton added. "Moreover, China has positive incentives to cooperate with America in a way that the Soviet Union never did."

The professors, however, expressed concern over the effects of a rapidly burgeoning Chinese economy and military on other countries.

"China has been the major driver of regional and now global economic growth. Its imports of raw materials play a big role in fueling the economies of other countries, particularly in Asia," Friedberg said. In addition, "[China has] contributed to higher standards of living in other places including the United States by driving down the cost of many goods."

Nonetheless, the panelists agreed that the country's politics could potentially undermine its development in the long run.

"[China] is devoting more and more resources to internal security," Friedberg said. "It's more and more concerned about domestic unrest in part because it doesn't have legitimate acceptable mechanisms for people to express their political views. It doesn't have a reliable legal system in which people can expect fair results."

China's increasing power and assertiveness are resulting in greater anxiety and uncertainty among its neighbors about its intentions, he continued, noting the country's support of authoritarian regimes like Syria, Iran and North Korea.

Lampton, however, noted that politically, "Since 1977, you've had the evolution over time of weaker leaders in China," he said. "You've got a more fragmented society and bureaucracy, and you have an increasingly empowered society. ... The problem from my point of view isn't really where China's headed over the long run, but it's how you get there with the least human cost and damage to the international system."

Both panelists said that maintaining the current state of economic development in China would influence political reform and aid the country in its gradual transition to democracy.

The debate, moderated by Allen Carlson, associate professor of government at Cornell, was sponsored by Cornell's Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.

Jacques Diec '15 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.