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Are We Overestimating China’s Capability To Be a Candidate for a 21st Century Superpower?
As a rising global economic power, China poses a real threat to the US who has long been recognised as the world’s superpower. But the US is likely to hold its position.
21 January, 2021

Post Cold War, the US was in its prime, freely a “unipolar superpower in the modern world”, and the dollar was the most important global currency.

Whilst the rise of China as an emerging superpower has stimulated conversation as to whether they in fact will take over the US, there is debate as to whether they are just friendly competition.

The US has had a good time. It is the world’s most dominant economic and military power, and its cultural imprint spans the world. Just behind the US are China and Russia.

US military history is the reason for the nation’s power today. Dating back to 1898, the Treaty of Paris ended the Spanish-American war and left the US with previously Spanish territory, namely Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Though many of the acquired territories are now independent of US rule, they provided the foundation for what allowed the US to grow to the superpower it is today.

But the US is struggling. Superpowers are usually characterised by good or influential leaders. Trump is a problematic one. His election as the US President in 2016 marked an unexpected victory for populism that left an already polarised country worse off. Over his presidency, he was quick to criticise deals he did not negotiate such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He has almost initiated many wars, if not fueled others. His rhetoric and policies have also worked to marginalise minorities. A horrid track record, which brings no surprise that he has set the record for the first president to be impeached twice and has lawsuits stacking up against him.

The US’ strength is being defined by these moments. Failure to lead during this pandemic seems to show that the US will probably not recover the competency and dignity it once had. Almost 400,000 lives have been lost to COVID-19 as of this month, a depressing number that could have been avoided. Clearly, the behaviour of the Trump administration has left long term damage to the economy and society. However, a revitalization of the US democracy came in due course.

Where does this leave China? China was able to successfully control the COVID-19 pandemic with stern leadership. ​To put it in perspective, the UK has a population 20 times smaller than China, yet it has seen five times as many cases of COVID-19 and almost ten times as many deaths, up until October 2020. China is the top exporting and trading country in the world, and they embrace globalisation like no other. They are expected to overtake the US as an economic, technological, military and political influence. There is no doubt they are a threat to the US. The ongoing trade war between the two is a senseless struggle of tariffing each other ruthlessly at the expense of themselves. A very steep learning curve for the two.

But will China ever be fully trusted? President Xi Jinping is currently leading a nation with a population of over a billion. With a growing middle class, China is leaving behind its developing status. Nevertheless, its communist government is overbearing. It deters foreign investment, and they are disguising a genocide as ‘reeducation’. 

The whole world knows of China’s concentration camps, but unfortunately, even with UN intervention, this has had little impact. Many countries are simply giving warnings to China with no sanctions. What we need accordingly is for world powers to assemble and coordinate a strong international response to China’s repression of Uighurs. Meanwhile, the number of Uighur casualties is rising by the day, and by comparison, it has surpassed the number of people killed during the Holocaust. We should hope that we learnt from the first time round. A human rights violation on such a large scale, in the hands of such a powerful nation, is wicked.

Whilst China, economically, is a global power and thereby poses a significant threat to the US, its lack of liberal democracy will continue to make China fall short of being a true, all-round global superpower. Unless it changes its system, the US is likely to hold its position. Or perhaps there is not a single superpower race – just two great countries with poor leaders.

+ posts

Lara Ros, 2nd Year Student at KCL

Lara Ros, 2nd Year Student at KCL


  1. Zuzanna

    A very insightful article! I’m interested to see how the relations between the two superpowers unravel in the following years, especially with a new US president leading the nation.

  2. Heli

    A carefully articulated article surrounding a very interesting topic! Reads amazingly well and gives a thorough understanding to the reader about the relationship the US and China hold.

  3. Gregory

    Interesting article overall, but I think the final claim misses the mark.

    China’s “lack of liberal democracy” is what has enabled its rapid rise to prominence in the past two decades. If China has shown us anything in the past year alone, it’s that its centralised authority has enabled the most efficient and effective response to Covid-19 of any nation of its scale.

    In our pursuit for the preservation of liberal democracy, we have now shackled ourselves to our homes. Our government’s failures in dealing with the pandemic (which one can argue is an atrocity in itself) are not the faults of China, they are the faults of our system and our stubbornness to adapt.

    Of course, I will not argue against the concept of democracy or support an authoritarian state, I am expressing that we should be open to considering that perhaps China is on to something here. Perhaps in the context of China, its lack of liberal democracy is not an impediment but an accelerator.

  4. Matthias Reindl

    Great read! I am interested in how the step by step opening and moving to a market economy will affect politics in the coming decades and how this will impact the trust that China is able to gain. The example of the US has shown that trust can also be lost quite quickly in liberal democratic countries, while other countries ruled under autocratic regimes managed to gain limited trust during the same period (thinking about Arabic countries)

  5. Xander

    Very insightful article with many good points. It’s a good read.

  6. Xi

    This is how you get blocked from China

  7. Josh Pace

    very nice, coherent article !


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