To answer this question, we need to define (or more accurately, operationalize) the term "great power." In other words, how do we translate the concept "great power" into the real world? How do we know a great power when we see it? Let's take a stab at this subject by looking at several well-known efforts to conceptualize "great power."
Academics typically measure great power status based on relative power capabilities. One straightforward approach is to compute the economic and military power, among other things, of all countries in the international system, based on various numeric indicators, to a get a picture of where power is concentrated in the world. Here, the emphasis is on hard power: the capabilities that can be used to bribe, aid, threaten, and fight others.
Kenneth Waltz suggests an even simpler method. To be considered a great power, a country must be at the top or very close to the top in a battery of indicators of power, all of which touch on a country's technological, economic, political, and military capacity and sophistication. In Waltz's view, a great power can't lag in one category, which makes sense. Think about late 1980s Japan. To be sure, Japan was an emerging economic powerhouse, but its weak military and its foreign policy passivity prevented its climb up the great power ladder. Japan's ineffectual national security apparatus limited the country's influence and doomed it to be follower rather than leader in world politics.
For those of you less interested in data gathering and number crunching and looking more for simple rules of thumb, I have two more options. John Mearsheimer contends that great powers dominate their own regions. They are able to redesign their environments, to varying degrees, to serve their interests. As examples, they carve out spheres of influences and create regional economic and security institutions that enshrine, and often advance, their power and standing in the world. Less dominant, yet still powerful, countries usually face obstacles--both internal and external--that prevent them from from tinkering with their environments. Of particular importance is the presence of other powerful countries in the same region. Such countries--either by themselves or via alliances--can act as effective counterweights to any other member in the region, potentially circumscribing the latter's behavior and limiting its influence and power maximization possibilities.
Here is another approach: does a country look and act like a great power? Is it active in international relations? Does it have its own sphere of influence? Does it frequently set the agenda in the world? Does it seek to expand its interests? This logic follows roughly from the work of Hans Morgenthau, arguably, the father of modern international relations scholarship. Morgenthau posits a one-to-one relationship between state power and interests. Weak countries are usually primarily concerned with what happens inside of and proximate to their borders; much stronger and more powerful countries have the requisite capabilities to be global players. And they usually act as such, when opportunities arise. Great powers, and aspiring great powers, want the respect, prestige, and other perks associated with international dominance. Furthermore, they also realize that it is better to write the rules of international order rather than have those mechanisms foisted upon them.
Unfortunately, a proper and thorough assessment of the above attempts to define "great power" is beyond the scope of this blog post. But here is what we can say: China is the second most powerful country in the world, a rising power, and a potential contender to great power status. China has the second largest economy, it has embarked on a large-scale program to modernize and expand its military and power projection capabilities, especially its naval ones, and it has taken the lead in creating green technologies. China has become more assertive in international relations, putting its stamp--in one form or another, and for better and worse--on a host of issues: the world economy, violence in Syria, the transition in power in North Korea, reconstruction in Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation, territorial and waterway claims in the South China Sea, and so on. China's lust for new energy resources has led it to complete trade deals in far away places like Africa and South America. Equally important, China is now treated as an emerging great power by the international community. Most notably, worried about the rise of China, under Barack Obama, the U.S. has reoriented its foreign policy by implementing a "pivot" toward Asia.
All of this said, China's continued rise over the long-term is by no means guaranteed. Despite the breathless, practically cheerful, proclamations that the 21st century will be dominated by China, that the sun is setting on America's empire, a post-American world so to speak, there are few good reasons to assume these things will be true. America could once again show its political and economic resilience and vitality by rebounding from a tough last decade. And China has a host of obstacles to overcome. As a result, I am not quite ready to anoint China as the next big thing in international relations. China is still a relatively poor country, lacks the ability to mobilize and project military power into distant lands/waterways, and has not demonstrated the creative and innovative capacity--at least to this point--to be a business hub to the world.
And that's not all. As I wrote last October, I have other concerns:
China's economy could overheat. Its economy can't continue to grow at 10% for the foreseeable future, right? After all, it's an export-led market that depends on a healthy and vibrant U.S. and European economies, China's two largest markets, and both are struggling and expected to struggle for the next several years. Economists have long suspected that the unemployment rates in China are far higher than what Chinese bureaucrats routinely report to the world. Like America and Europe, China also has a debt problem. With the large number of future seniors, China likely has a upcoming workforce problem. Most of the world's most polluted cities, not surprisingly, are in China; attempts to remedy this, according to experts, could cause a 2-3% annual drag on the Chinese economy. The shift to urbanization, the impending move of hundreds of millions of people, won't be easy and could prove to be traumatic. China frequently experiences protests and demonstrations, some of which are violent. Any sharp negative changes in the Chinese economy or political system could exacerbate this situation, thereby eroding the political and social cohesion of China.Now add in China's chaotic politics. Its impending leadership transition, due to take place later this year, seems to have fractured Beijing's elites. The Bo Xilai fiasco has revealed the extent of deep corruption embedded in the Chinese system. The treatment and eventual defection of Chen Guangcheng clearly highlighted the tyrannical ruthlessness of local and national leaders. Going forward, if these issues are not handled better, it would not be surprising to see a host of negative repercussions for China: an unraveling of social and political unity and cohesion, a delegitimized Chinese state, and, by extension, and a greater difficulty in extracting and appropriating resources in an efficient manner.
And of course, don't forget about regional politics. China does not dominate the region in line with Mearsheimer's expectations. And that's primarily because it is located in a region, broadly defined, that contains several other powerful countries (India, Russia, Japan, and even Indonesia, South Korea, Australia, Vietnam). A rising China automatically triggers wariness and concern within the region. But an overly assertive, perhaps aggressive, China will trigger counterbalancing behavior. In fact, this has already happened.
America's so-called pivot to Asia has generated support from from U.S. allies like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines. These countries want tighter political and security ties and enhanced military to military cooperation, and that is exactly what Washington is willing to give each country. Asian countries are already looking for ways to prevent the possibility of being politically, militarily, and economically dominated by China. And when push comes to shove, don't be surprised to see other countries, particularly India and even Russia, cultivate stronger ties with America as a way to balance against China. This kind of counterbalancing could very well ensure that China gets bogged down in regional politics/security affairs, effectively preventing Beijing from having a sufficient global focus to challenge the U.S. for hegemony.
In the end, does knowing that China is a rising power tell us anything? It tells us that there will be increased competition and rivalry in world between China and the U.S. and its allies in Asia. This is inevitable, no matter if Beijing's intentions turn out to be mostly friendly and benign. After all, as China searches for new trade and energy deals, it is going to encroach on the turf of the U.S., ruffling its feathers. Additionally, even if China listens to America's exhortations and becomes a "responsible stakeholder" in world politics, the U.S. won't be happy about this, as this means Washington will have to share international leadership with Beijing. Similarly, if China wants greater influence in internationally or regionally, again, Washington won't be pleased.
All of these scenarios, and many more, involving China could be relatively innocuous yet unnerve American elites. They might believe that China's rise comes at the expense of America. Moreover, because the intentions of Chinese leaders are by definition private and not completely knowable to outsiders, the U.S. will be wary of China's motives, at least as long as China remains a rising power.
Saying anything more than the above depends on your views on the U.S., China, bipolarity, great power relations, China-U.S. relations, and so on. In reality, Sino-American relations are not predestined to prolonged hostility or conflict, even if China makes the leap to great power status. While many associate tension, hostility, and cold wars with the bipolar era of Soviet and American dominance, this says nothing about a hypothetical period of Chinese and American supremacy. Indeed, Sino-American relations could veer toward hostility and conflict, but it is not the only possible outcome. America and China could simply become rivals and competitors, each learning over time to peacefully coexist with the other.
In this case, the cold war era could prove very valuable, serving as a powerful reminder of the disasters that can easily occur if superpower relations are not properly managed. Let's hope future Chinese and American leaders internalize these lessons.
*UPDATE: A version of this piece was published by Strategic Review. You can find it here.