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China’s Advent on Global Superpower Scene-An Applied Perspective of Power Transition Theory


China’s immanent rise as global superpower in the debate is broadly anchored on A.F.K Organski’s power transition theory in general and George Modelski’s Long Cycle theory within the over all ambit of constructs of realism and/ or structural realism in international relations (IR). In the deliberations, there is a common refrain to bemoan the dawn fall of the United States of America (USA) from the top pedestal. In quite a few reputed studies the time frame for the shift of the power pole has been set within a few years from now. This is notwithstanding the skeptics who find China wanting on several counts to compete with and surpass the USA as global superpower. The studies of the kind yet do not score out China’s upshot on the global scene as reckon-able economic power. China’s split image to this effect raises an array of research questions, where this paper dwells on various counter pulsates to China’s stride to the top global hegemonic position.

In its perspective, the paper puts up an applied perspective on otherwise standard positions of the proponents of power transition theory, who subscribe the notion of cyclical power shift taking place in favour of China at the ashes of the USA. Subscribing to June Teufel Dreyer’s approach, the paper dwells upon the achievements and otherwise on the bases of various components of hard and soft power capabilites of entities to the race for supremacy. In the backdrop, the paper holds counter view to those who stand rather mesmerized to China outdoing to most peers in economic muscles during the first decade of this new millennium.

The paper, in its organic setting peeps first, into the ‘Criticalizing Foregrounds’ of ‘power pole hemisphere shift debate’, where it unravels the inside out of the stance of the Chinese mandarin to the outside. It prods out and gauges the ‘Construct Validity’ in broad as much as specific contexts of the achievement streaks of the Chinese enterprise to get to the top pedestal in the international power hierarchy and finally, moves on to speak on various ‘Counter Pulsates’ to the Changeover’. On methodological plane, the paper examines and simultaneously tests the convergent as much as discriminate sides of the theses, where the measurement instruments included the designated parameters from the domain of political realism in the discipline of IR. Nonetheless, it uses the term ‘global superpower’ (quánqiú chāojídàguó) in preference to scores of equivalents making rounds in the intellectual space both in China and the world around. In the last go, the paper takes organically a composite view of varying and differing stances of the Western and Chinese scholarship.

Criticalizing Foregrounds

The ragging debate on the plausibility of hemisphere shift in the economic, military and cultural power poles and prognoses in the Western intellectual space stemmed from Samuel P. Huntingdon’s night mare of immanent ‘clash of civilizations’ and ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’s advisory on China getting ‘wide awake from its deep slumber’. Interestingly, the fire was stoked by the Chinese themselves.

For a variety of reasons, primarily existential and as part of conscious policy navigation, the think tanks of Deng Xiaoping epoch pedaled home comprehensive national power (zǒnghé guoli) theory [1]. It suggested China’s rank vis-à-vis other peers in terms various components of hard and soft power of a state. For want of cohesive and fully agreed upon tenets, the computations of China’s Academy of Military Sciences (AMC) and the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) carried different values. The story has been no different in scores of other enterprises on the part of Chinese scholarship. The pace of decline of the US and rise of China thus, differ in each study. As per Yellow Book international politics, 2006, with a total score of 59.10, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) held five notch below at sixth rank after the US (90.62), UK (65.4), Russia (63.03), France (62.00) and Germany (61.93). Japan, Canada, South Korea and India stood behind. While not specific on the issue of China taking the mantle of dominant power at the ashes of the US, the two studies remain rather conclusive on immanent change of power pole in near future.

This was since 24 character missive of Deng Xiaoping of securing position without giving inklings held good for successive leadership[2]. Meanwhile, thanks to China’s success in turning the tide to its comparative advantage on many counts including the exchange rate, the PRC witnessed a rather startling pace of climb up in its GDP. Until 1997, the PRC was among just billions worth economy in US dollars. Even after the turn around, and earning accolade of a US$1 trillion economy, it had to hold breathe for seven long years until 2005 to reach the mark of US$2 trillion economy. Unthinkable happened in the world history thereafter. China’s GDP galloped past to US$8.22 trillion in the next 6 years by 2012[3]. In the process, it outpaced one and all peers except the US.

This uncanny development shocked and surprised Western as well as the Chinese scholarship in almost equal measure but with different effects. In a rather broad reflex, and succinct adherence to the constructs of realism and/ or structural realism, the scholarship of the Western world sounded last post to the US dominance on global scene on this count. While skewed, and short of meeting much of the hard and soft power requirements, the constructs do stand grounds in general to testify China’s most likely inroad as ‘global economic superpower’.

Chinese response, in turn bear out praxis of Manichaeism (Móníjiào), and shrewd outplay of what Min Xinpei called ‘assertive pragmatism’[4]. Strategically aimed at rallying world opinion to its strategic design, the Chinese political elite floated a number of policy cliché. First, it was ‘China’s peaceful rise’ (Zhōngguó hépíng juéqǐ). As it didn’t echo much less work along their expectations, it was later modified as China’s peaceful development (Zhōngguó hépíng fāzhǎn), and ‘harmonious world’ (héxié shìjiè). The think tanks in the Western world looked at it as a ploy, befitting to China’s strategic world view and Deng Xiaoping’s broad but express guidelines to his henchmen to ‘hide capacity and bide time’ (táoguàng yǎnghuì) until the dawn of opportune time. Later, Jiang Zemin’s policy line to ‘gear with the world’ (yǔ shìjiè jiēguǐ) and ‘developing as a comprehensive national power’ (fāzhǎn zǒnghé guólì) largely quadrupled the suspicion.

In the debate, among the early Western signalers of China’s upward drive as global superpower, James Hoge, Jr first, stands tall. In his estimates, the PRC then tested positive as a ‘global power in making’[5]. In his turn, Chris Cumming could concede China little better a ‘rising Asian powerhouse’[6]. In a rather flood of subsequent studies, then and now, the PRC has since earned numerous honorifics-emerging superpower, potential superpower, most obvious global power on rise, next global and last but not the least, hyper power.

On their part, the Chinese scholars first, debunked the sustainability of the very idea of ‘superpower’ (chāojíqiángguó). It attracted the label of imperialist (dìguózhǔyì), worth little more than a paper tiger (zhǐlǎohǔ). No sooner it looked possible to get on and driver safe, they came to greet all cudgels that eulogized China’s ascendance to preeminence with a difference. In the eyes of Liu Mingfu, the reason is crystal clear. It met dreams of rather three generations of Chinese leadership beginning Sun Yat Sen down to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping and hence, a morale booster for the Chinese nationalist sentiments[7]. In rather historic perspective, all this happened as it came to outpace Germany, France, Britain and Japan in economic arena, and some of the western studies including the World Bank reports painted rosy picture on the premise of sustained infinite growth.

Construct Validity

The pace of surge in China’s GDP thus, stands the prime mover and corner stone of all conclusive prognoses[8]. Strange but true, one of the most fancied neologism of the day, 21st Century as the Chinese century (Zhōngguó Shijie) did as well stem from no where but its grand showing on this count alone. For the bare fact that the concept of power as politics keep changing over the period of time, it is but difficult to set an all time measure[9]. Standard bearer has thus, to evolve in tune with the changing dynamics of time and must be comprehensive.

Going by Cui Jianshu, the Long Cycle Theory of George Modelski as well as Paul Kennedy’s otherwise deep, incisive and full blown historical precedents of power pole shifts doesn’t carry all time whole truth[10]. The summations can practically hold water only if and as long as the dynamics of international relations did not undergo metamorphosis in response to new developments, and more importantly, the underlying assumptions remained intact. A bare look on the trail of convergent and discriminate sides of the constructs of the scholarship in the field could stand testimony in applied perspective.

On theoretical plane, as Lyman Miller held, the superpower stature of China, and for that any other entity in question, could better be measured and adjudged along four axes: Military, economic, political and cultural[11]. Joseph Nye has preferred to club all these prerequisites in two broad categories: the soft power stood for ability to persuade by attracting and co-opting; and, the hard one to coerce, using carrots and sticks. He added diplomacy over and above political and cultural factors to the list of Miller. Economic and military might thus, constituted parts of hard power[12]. In the constructs of Kim Richard Nossal, continental-sized landmass, sizable population, super-ordinate economic capacity, high degree of non-dependence on international intercourse, and last but not the least, the second strike capability of nuclear warheads constituted the basic requirements of global superpower[13]. Thomas J. McCormick prescribed inter alia, territorial expanse, geographic features and lead in science and technology as being pivotal for long term power projections[14]. The list runs quite long. They have bearings on the capabilities of an entity in question to project power in one way or the other.

Interestingly, in their constructs, and to a large measure in summations of China’s perceived stride as global superpower on these counts, the Chinese as much as foreign scholars are literally on the same page. They draw on power transition theory, and envision the US yielding ground to the PRC in not too distant a future. Estimates about the dateline vary both in the case of hardcore methodological studies and opinion polls. Comparative economic future has been at the centre of all estimates. International Monetary Fund (IMF) pronounced the end of the US epoch by 2016. The Economist had rather chosen to put off the slides in the count down of dominance to 2019. Close on the heels were World Bank and Goldman Sachs to predict China outpacing the US 2025. Pew Research survey datelined the shift ending 2030. The estimates thus, differ only in terms of dateline. Eventuality of China winning the race as next hegemon doesn’t change much. It included even the cautious ones like Minxin Pei. There is common refrain to take economic performance as an engine of growth of all components of hard and soft power.

Measured against all those parameters, both individually and conjointly of hard and soft components, the US remains the only entity to conform A.F.K Organski’s description of ‘dominant power’ of the day. In historical perspective, and to a fit to George Modelski’s Long Cycle Theory, it got into the shoes of the Great Britain after World War II, and has since kept up its preponderance amidst challenges from different rivals in the race. The story is no different when measured against the prerequisites spelled out in Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory and Charles P. Kindleberger’s Hegemonic Stability Theory (HST) either. No wonder Min Xin Pei is rather ecstatic in his assertion in holding the US aloft as the lone global superpower in the history to meet one and all prerequisites. He found comparative merit of the US over all peers on grounds of holding and constantly honing up its ‘technologically advanced economy, high-tech military, fully integrated nationhood, insuperable military and economic advantages vis-à-vis potential competitors, capacity to provide global public goods and an appealing ideology’[15].

Counter Pulsates

On various conceptual counts, in particular that of A.F.K Organski’s theoretical constructs, the PRC tests positive just the prowess of a ‘great power’ in making[16]. Appellations of ‘rising superpower’ (chū shēng de chāojí dàguó), ‘emerging superpower’ (xīnjìn de chāojí dàguó), ‘potential superpower’ (qiánzhì chāojí dàguó) and like in several studies to upstage China’s tryst for a place under the sun subsumes this hard fact. In Paul Kennedy’s much adored diagnoses and prescriptions, China has to scale and tread a lot first, to gain and then maintain ascendancy in dynamic perspective[17]. Acceptance of leadership held primacy, built on solid superstructure of composite strength of hard and soft powers in comparative perspective of other peers in the trail.

As for the ground realities, and home truth of China’s intent, purpose and strategic moves, it has had consistently worked most to bolster its hard powers. Of military and economic variables, the latter has been the new face of China’s stratagem. The calculation is simple and straight. Ever burgeoning costs of military hard and software depended squarely on relatively high and sustained economic muscles.

With less than regional security threat commitments, the PRC has since been committing 9.5% of a total global military spending US$1.756 trillion[18]. It could happen again just because its GDP happened to frog leap to all time high of US$8.22 trillion (CN¥51.93) for an array of factors. However, with less than one eighth of per capita income of the USA at US$6091, and consequently much less marginal propensity to spend to ward off security concerns, it was now and for quite some time well neigh impossible for the PRC to raise its defence spending to compete and surpass the present commitments of the US 39% of the global defence spending.

In the evolving technological and humane contexts of 21st century warfare, winning either a short or long range war with precision can altogether be a different story. Nonetheless, mission effectiveness, when all said and done, theoretically call for and largely depended on systems and services brought to bear upon in tune with the changing dynamic of the war theater beyond the weapon system. It has to make rather Herculean efforts to close the gap on planks of force mobilization: the PLA Ground Forces (Zhōngguó Rénmín Jiěfàngjūn Lujūn); the PLA Navy (Zhōngguó Rénmín Jiěfàngjūn HǎiJūn); PLA Air Force (Zhōngguó Rénmín Jiěfàngjūn Kōngjūn); China’s strategic missile force, christened the Second Artillery Corps (Dìèr Pàobīng Bùduì); and even in the arena of Unrestricted Warfare (wúxiànzhìzhàn) that it prides over.

In the backdrop of the very dynamic IR fast changing to what Huntington called ‘Uni-multipolar’, the US and, for that matter the PRC and/ or any other emerging global power could rather turn ‘more normal and more ordinary major power’[19]. The prognoses of immanent global power pole shifting in favour of the PRC and the fears of sweeping changes in the economic, military and cultural lives doesn’t stand to reason. Wen Wu and, for that matter David Lai thus, stand ground in discounting ‘war route’ to the settlement of contentious issues in the face of China’s upshot on global scene[20].

(The writers, Dr Sheo Nandan Pandey and Prof. Hem Kusum are Sinologists of repute based in New Delhi.

Foot Notes

[1] Comprehensive National Power (CNP) is a putative measure of state power, calculated numerically by putting together various quantitative indices to create single number. Within Chinese political thought, the main goal of the Chinese state was to maximize China’s CNP. It draws on age old Chinese way of looking at risk (weiji危機), where the first character ‘wei’ refers to danger and the second character ‘ji’ signified opportunities. The precept thus, intently speaks of turning risk into an opportunity. [2] Deng Xiaoping’s 24 Character Strategy advised the pal bearers of the political leadership to observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership (lěngjìngguānchá, zhànwěnjiǎogēn, chénzhuó tāoguāng yǎnghuì,shànyú shǒuzhuō, juébùdāngtóu 冷静观察, 站稳脚跟, 沉着应付, 韬光养晦, 善于守拙, 绝不当头)

[3] Figures for the analysis have been drawn from the table in the China Statistical Yearbook 2012, http://www. (accessed on Oct 13, 2013) [4] Minxin Pei, “Assertive Pragmatism: China’s Economic Rise and its Impacts on Chinese Foreign Policy”, IFRI, 2006¬_ defense/Prolif_Paper_Minxin_Pei.pdf ( accessed on Oct 15, 2013) [5]Hoge, James F. Jr. ‘A Global Power Shift in Making’, Foreign Affairs, July-Aug 2004 Issue (accessed on Oct 13, 20130) [6]Chris Cumming, ‘China-A Rising Asian Powerhouse’ (accessed on Oct 13, 2013) [7] Liu Mingfu, “The China Dream: The Great Power Thinking and Strategic Positioning of China in the Post American Age” (Zhongguo meng: hou meiguo shidai de daguo siwei zhanlue dingwei), Beijing: Zhongguo youyi chuban gongsi, 2010. [8]The latest Pew report speaks of positive image of China supplanting the US in 16 of 22 nations surveyed. While Pakistan showed a sort of extreme infatuation, the Chinese were rather self opinionated for the obvious reason. World opinion on China’s military might and its aftermath has been on expected negative lines. (accessed on Oct.15, 2013); Shaun Rein, “Yes, China has Fully Arrived as a Superpower”,¬e_mjx.shtml (accessed on Oct 15, 2013) [9]Clegg, Stewart. “Changing Concepts of Power, Changing Concepts of Politics”, Administrative Theory and Praxis, Vol. 23, No 2, 2001:126-150 (accessed on Oct 15, 2013) [10] Cui Jianshu, “Cyclical Logic in the Transition of Hegemony: Modelski’s Long Cycle Theory in International Relations and its Weaknesses”, Journal of World Economics and Politics, No. 12, 2007, pp 24-32 (accessed on Oct 17, 2013)

[11] Miller, Lyman, “China: An Emerging Superpower”, Stanford Journal of International Relations (accessed on Oct 20, 2013) [12]Nye, Joseph S. Jr. “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics”, New York: Public Affairs, 2004; as also: “China’s Soft Power Deficit”, Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2012 (accessed on Oct. 21, 2013) [13]Nossal, Kim Richard, “Lonely Superpower or Unapologetic Hyperpower? Analyzing American Power in the Post Cold War Era” (accessed on Oct 21, 2013) [14]McCormick, Thomas J. “America’s Half Century: united States Foreign Policy in the Cold War”, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989

[15] Pei, Minxin. “China is not a Superpower”, APAC 2020,The Diplomat (accessed on Oct 23, 2013) [16]In late May 2012, John Mearsheimer, the author of the celebrated work, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, reportedly told reporter of the Global Times Wang Wen that China had to ‘rise a lot more before its position becomes a real challenge to the US’. It settles speculative deductions of scholars who tend to see China having nearly reached the pinnacle. Ref. (accessed on Oct 23, 2013) [17] Kennedy, Paul. “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000”, London: Fontana Press, 1989.

[18]Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Year Book 2013 (accessed on Oct 23, 2013) [19]In the eyes of Samuel P. Huntington, the international system of the day was neither ‘Uni-polar’ nor ‘Multi-polar’. It was rather ‘Uni-multipolar’. He called it a transitional stage, whereupon the lone global superpower of the day, the US was to turn more normal, more ordinary major power. [20]Wu, Wen. “ Violent Power Transition between the US and China: A Critique of Power Transition Theory”, Thesis, Nanyang Technological University, RSIS, 2010 http: (accessed on Oct. 28, 2013); David Lai, “The united States and China in Power Transition”, Strategic Study Institute (SSI), Dec 2011 1093.pdf (accessed on Oct. 28, 2013) —————

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