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The Extent to Which China Is a Threat to the USA's Status as the Only Current Superpower

Updated on May 26, 2016

A superpower is a country which exercises global influence, through cultural, military, and economic power. The USA is currently the only country with the ability to do this – it has the largest economy of any country, and the most global brands. Its military regularly engages in operations in other countries, and it has more overseas bases than any other country, supporting the USA’s self-proclaimed position as the ‘world police’. However, some argue that China could soon join the USA as a superpower; it is the only other country with a GDP of more than ten million million US dollars (the use of the dollar as the standard global currency reinforces the USA’s superpower status), and it exports far more than any other country, implying a large cultural influence (although this is generally seen as being more subtle than the USA’s influence; many goods are made in China, but large companies tend to focus on domestic revenue rather than international brand recognition, e.g. China Airlines).

China has the fourth largest land area, which gives it enormous amounts of natural resources, and therefore exporting power. It also has the world’s largest hydropower potential. Both of these points imply an increasing sense of energy security within China, meaning that it will have less reliance on the import of fuel, reducing its vulnerability to international political influence, and will be able to export excess energy, increasing its own ability to influence politics. In comparison, although the USA also has a large amount of natural resources, e.g. oil in Alaska, it still imports oil from the Middle-East, exposing it to political influence. In 1973, the OPEC nations started an embargo against the USA, in response to American involvement in the Yom Kippur War; this resulted in the price of oil rising by nearly 300%. Most of the USA’s debt is serviced by China; together with China’s superior energy security, this could lead it to strongly influencing the USA’s politics.

China has the largest population in the world, and therefore the largest domestic market to sell goods to. The government also receives large amounts of tax from such a huge population. This is significant because economic power is the most important factor in determining superpower status, as it allows the growth of infrastructure, and therefore globalisation, cultural influence, and the ‘purchase’ of military power. China’s special economic zones attract significant FDI, further increasing the buoyancy of its economy. With roughly 20% of the world’s population, some argue that China does not need to export brand influence as much as other countries, although this goes against the definition of a superpower. China’s large population also means that, in absolute terms, it has many more patent applications per year than the USA, and produces more PhD students; the increasing quaternary sector and education level represents the increasing middle class – an attribute associated with the USA in the 1950s, when it was establishing itself as the sole superpower.

Many economists argue that the strength of the growth of the Chinese economy was the main reason for the world escaping a recession when the American stock market fell in 2000-2001. This shows that China supported the world when the superpower failed, and implies that it has been verging on superpower status for over a decade. However, others believe that the low labour costs in China have boosted the USA’s status, whilst diminishing China’s chance of becoming a superpower; the USA, with the majority of the world’s largest TNCs, is able to exploit the cheap labour, keeping costs down, and allowing it to remain competitive against global inflation. This point also raises questions concerning poverty in China; around 30% of Chinese people live on less than $1.25 per day, although the USA still has around 15% in such conditions, showing that relatively high levels of poverty are not entirely detrimental to a country’s claim to superpower status.

Whilst a large army is important when being considered as a superpower, the level of technology involved in said army is equally significant. The possession of nuclear weapons is arguably the most important factor, and China is one of the few countries to have such power.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that China will reach or even surpass the USA’s superpower status this century. However, this conclusion would assume that the absolute size of an economy is proportional to overall international strength, and there are many historical occurrences that go against this, e.g. Britain’s worldwide colonial dominance in the late 19th century, despite having less than fifty percent the GDP of China at the time. China still has large wealth distribution inequality, and its population is predicted to peak around 2040, after which its economy will likely begin to fall, as is currently being seen in Japan.


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    • Tom Groves profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Groves 

      2 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi Credence2! Thank you for your in-depth comment.

      The EU referendum ("Brexit") will be the first time that I am old enough to vote. I'm still undecided; both sides are publishing exaggerative propaganda (I've added a link to a particularly memorable piece below), and it's beginning to feel as though there will be very little tangible change, regardless of the outcome.

    • Credence2 profile image


      2 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      Interesting article, I could not imagine the U.S. functioning at a 30% poverty rate, which as you say is currently the case in China.

      China is getting people upset in military, economic and political circles. It has made inroads into Central America, with talk of building another canal similar to the one in Panama. While archaic, the Monroe Doctrine still resonates in the minds of many of the politicians.

      Its military strength is growing such that we are more intimidated about interfering in affairs that are clearly in China's zone of influence, such as Taiwan.

      As for economic development, I read that the African nations are more apt to deal with China rather then the US for aid, as there are no moral handwringing and human rights demands. No strings attached, and also we have a bad track record with our multinationals regarding exploitation of the populace and their resources. Pollution that we ignore there that we would not even think about allowing within the United States.

      Thanks again for a great article and your invitation to be part of your audience. BTW, just how is everything over there these days? We been hearing a lot about your BREXIT issue.


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