China: Ready to Assume a Leadership Role?

August 4, 2013

A recent Pew Survey on global attitudes shows that most people around the world believe that China will eclipse, or already has eclipsed, the United States as the dominant superpower. This is hardly surprising, given several decades of seemingly untrammeled growth that has allowed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to become the nation with the world’s second largest GDP, behind only the United States. Moreover, China’s GDP is expected, within a decade, to match or surpass America’s. With access to great economic power, military capability cannot be far behind. So, it appears that it is only a matter of time before China bestrides the world as the new, eastern colossus.

But beneath the glittering economic statistics, there are real reasons to question whether China can, much less will, displace the United States as the new global power—and even greater uncertainties about what such a world would look like. China faces real structural and organizational problems that are likely to interfere with its continued growth. Moreover, this growth may arouse an unprecedented reaction from its neighbors, especially if the United States does not succumb to a renewed bout of isolationism.



One of the key drivers of China’s economic growth has been its enormous working-age population. Because Mao Zedong equated more people with a more powerful country, China’s birth-rate mushroomed in the 1960s, leading to today’s large labor pool. But that massive population expansion placed enormous stress on China’s physical infrastructure, as the 1.4 billion people needed access to food, water, and living space. The subsequent imposition of the one-child policy has now created a situation where fewer and fewer working-age Chinese are supporting more and more retirees. Indeed, the Chinese government has released statistics suggesting that the working-age population is already beginning to shrink.

Not only will this trend eventually affect China’s economic competitiveness, as the supply of cheap labor evaporates, but it will also have military implications, as the number of people of military age also begins to shrink. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is unlikely to confront a larger opponent any time soon, but neither can it assume that it has an inexhaustible supply of manpower.

Nor can the Chinese leadership afford to expend that manpower lightly. In the absence of a national social welfare net, elderly Chinese still rely on their children, and increasingly their grandchildren, to support them in their old age. Loss of the younger generations has a direct impact on the lives of their older parents and grandparents. For precisely this reason, in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) relaxed the one-child restrictions for those families that lost their children. A bloody war would exacerbate this problem.

All of this raises questions about whether the PRC will retain the right population mix with which to be a true superpower.. A nation whose population skews older, with a shrinking cohort of working- and military- age people, would be unprecedented as a world leader. In such a situation, China’s ability to sustain economic and technological advances, as well as to enforce its will militarily, would be questionable at best.


Political Organization

If China’s demographics bode poorly for its ability to retain a position of leadership, the idiosyncrasies of its political organization raise real doubts about whether it can assume such a position in the first place. In China, it is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that matters; consequently, it is one’s place in the Party that determines one’s power and influence.

This situation is further underscored by the reality that the Chinese leadership structure is bifurcated between policy-setting, which is conducted by the Chinese Communist Party, and policy-implementing, which is the responsibility of the organs of the PRC government. In this context, policy-setting is determined by the CCP Central Committee, and especially its Politburo, and the Politburo Standing Committee, whose membership is based on rank within the Party. Those responsible for policy implementation, although still CCP members, are meanwhile often outside the key circles of actual political power. This same structure means the provincial Party secretary is typically much more powerful than the provincial governor, although the governor is the most senior provincial level government official. The result is that those who set policy are not always in positions to implement it, and vice versa.

This would seem to be one important reason why attempts to create a National Security Council (NSC)-type entity have failed to bear fruit: if an NSC is comprised solely of government ministers, then the most important Party members may not be present, while a Party-based NSC would not necessarily include the relevant ministers and bureaucracies (despite their also being Party members). Meanwhile, the “leading small groups” that do bring together Party and government leaders seem to have insufficient staffing to do more than basic coordination after policies are set.

This raises serious questions about China’s ability to assume a global leadership role. This structure was not necessarily a problem when the PRC was first founded, or even when China was a relatively minor actor on the world stage. How China made decisions had relatively little global or even regional impact.

But, China’s crisis management structure, born of the Telex-age, is ill-suited to make decisions at Internet, much less Twitter, speeds. Chinese decisions are made only after a consensus is reached by the top leadership – the Politburo or its Standing Committee. When no Chinese foreign minister since Qian Qichen has been a member of the CCP Politburo since 1998, putting the foreign ministry effectively out of the policy-making loop, Beijing’s ability to understand, much less shape, global events in time of crisis is dubious, at best.

This was seen in the EP-3 incident of 2001. After the collision between a US EP-3 surveillance aircraft and a Chinese fighter, the damaged American plane landed at a Chinese airbase on Hainan island. The aircraft sat on the tarmac and its crew was sequestered by the Chinese military. Meanwhile, it took Beijing days to formulate a response, even as the crisis intensified and American leaders fruitlessly sought to even contact the Chinese.


Antagonized Neighbors

In addition to structural weaknesses, China confronts increasingly wary neighbors. This is not to suggest that China can never assume a leadership position, but there is serious potential that Beijing’s neighbors will form an opposing coalition, rather than support China’s rise to superpower status.

The growing antagonism of China’s neighbors is a result of five years of remarkably maladroit Chinese diplomacy. Chinese actions have squandered nearly two decades of painstaking improvements in relations from Japan in the north, to the ASEAN nations in the southeast, to India, its increasingly powerful southern neighbor. China’s over-reaction to the Japanese arrest of a fisherman in the Senkakus, including the decision to embargo sales of rare earths, provided concrete evidence for oft-voiced fears that China’s economic rise would provide it with an economic lever to get its way. Beijing’s obstinacy on territorial claims in the South China Sea led to the failure of the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting to issue a joint communique—a first in the organization’s 45-year history. Meanwhile, relations between China and India, Asia’s two most populous countries, are experiencing a renewed period of tension, as Delhi’s fears of Chinese encirclement are exacerbated by Chinese incursions into Indian territory.

These geopolitical squabbles do not necessarily preclude China’s ability to lead. The Pew polling results indicate that many Southeast Asian nations, in particular, are not implacably opposed to China. This may be in part because China’s economic strength continues to make it an attractive potential partner—and a dangerous neighbor to antagonize. Asian history, moreover, exhibits far more “band-wagoning” than balancing behavior: there are few historical instances of Asian countries banding together to counter China.

But so long as the United States remains a major power, even if China’s GDP surpasses America’s, Asian nations will also have a choice that was not available during the Ming or Tang or Han dynasties—an external player to balance against the Middle Kingdom. China is not a doppelganger for imperial Germany, but its behavior could lead to a break with precedent, and induce balancing behavior much like the European coalition that came together to oppose the Kaiser.  This is contingent, of course, upon a perception of a sustained American commitment.


Prospects for Chinese Leadership

It is certainly possible that Xi Jinping will, over the next ten years, adjust Chinese policies and set the stage for Chinese leadership in the second half of the 21st Century. A gradual reformation of the one-child policy could, by the 2030s, create a new labor pool to sustain renewed economic growth. A commitment to serious economic reform, including of the labor and financial sectors, could free resources and reinvigorate the economy, in turn providing a renewed claim to legitimacy on the part of the CCP. Meanwhile, a return to Deng Xiaoping’s policy of not taking the lead and biding time could well dampen regional concerns about Chinese intentions.

All of this, however, requires Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and the other members of the Chinese Politburo to act decisively and to exhibit leadership at home. Actual economic reform, such as changes to the hukou system or reductions in subsidies, would be one sign of a serious commitment to challenging the status quo. Even harder would be to upgrade the roles of the foreign ministry, although with the Politburo and its Standing Committee already established, that is unlikely to bear fruit before 2017 (the next Party Congress). The coming year will provide signs of whether Xi and Li have the power and the will to undertake such hard measures.


Dean Cheng is a War on the Rocks contributor. He is the Heritage Foundation’s research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs.



Photo Credit: Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley