Global Impact of the Rise of China: An Emerging Superpower

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

CTU’s Global Security Series offers background on current national and homeland security topics. Dr. Morag’s fourth post of this series, discussed the global impact of China’s economy. Today’s final post will focus on the rise of China as a geopolitical power and rising superpower.

CTU Security Studies - Chinese FlagAs China’s economic might and global economic footprint has increased so have China’s aspirations to play a larger political and military role, in part, to protect its growing international interests.  China’s increased geostrategic presence is most clearly recognizable in the maritime sphere.

China’s rapidly growing industries have produced a voracious appetite for raw materials, many of which need to be obtained from overseas.  China has a significant and growing presence in the African continent. Chinese communities have become a fixture of life in the cities of many of Africa’s energy and resource rich countries.  China is Australia’s largest trading partner and Canada’s second largest – after the United States.  China is also dependent on oil supplies from the Middle East, Nigeria, Angola, Sudan and other areas.  All this has meant that China, which for several centuries has been almost exclusively a land power, must now cultivate a “blue water navy”, a navy that can project power on the high seas as opposed to a “brown water navy” one that that serves primarily coastal defense purposes. 

Two Ocean Strategy
China is currently pursuing a two ocean strategy.  While it cannot yet aspire to project maritime power over the entire planet, as the United States does, China’s focus is increasingly on building a major maritime presence in the Pacific and Indian oceans.  Chinese ships have been involved in anti-piracy activities in the Horn of Africa region and in Southeast Asia as well as in patrolling shipping lanes in both oceans.  While the Chinese navy is not in a position to compete with the U.S. Navy, China has reportedly been seeking the ability, in a wartime scenario, to deny the U.S. Navy access to the “first island chain” comprising of Japan, the Ryuku Islands, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia.  According to Robert Kaplan of the Center for a New American Security, the collapse of the Soviet Union has allowed China, for the first time in centuries, to pursue sea power because of the absence of fear of a land invasion.  Kaplan points to speculation that China will finance the building of a canal across the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand to facilitate movement from the Pacific to the Indian oceans. The Chinese navy has dubbed a “String of Pearls” strategy for the Indian Ocean that will involve naval bases and listening posts across the Indian Ocean from Pakistan to Sri Lanka to Bangladesh to Southeast Asia.

China has also been more aggressive in revisiting old territorial claims to areas that are now known to have the potential for being rich in oil and natural gas.  In the South China Sea lie two sparsely populated island chains, the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.  Ownership of the Paracel islands are disputed between China, Taiwan and Vietnam, while the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia dispute ownership over the Spratly islands. The rapid increase in the size of the Chinese navy will provide Beijing with a greater ability to exercise power and sovereignty over the islands, irrespective of the desires of its Southeast Asian neighbors. 

In short, the United States, which has enjoyed effective naval hegemony over the Pacific since the end of the Second World War, is set to lose its unchallenged control over that part of the world.  The Chinese are building ships, including naval ones, at a furious pace and China may become the world’s largest shipbuilder by the middle of the decade.  All of these factors suggest that the United States will need to reassess its Pacific Ocean and East Asian strategy.

Space Dominance
China is also increasing in its ability to challenge U.S. dominance over space-based platforms and the cyberspace domain.  While China does not expect to be able to produce and deploy satellite systems in numbers capable of challenging the United States’ domination of earth’s orbit, it is working on systems designed to blind, shoot down or otherwise disrupt U.S. satellite communications, espionage and other systems.  In 2007, China carried out a successful test of its first anti-satellite weapon, destroying an aging Chinese weather satellite. In the process, creating ever more debris in space that could pose a threat to existing satellites or astronauts in earth’s orbit. 

In the cyber realm, China has developed a cyber war fighting doctrine and capacity that is considered to be a significant potential threat to the United States, or any other adversary of China.  The Chinese military has been working to identify logistics, command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) vulnerabilities of U.S. military forces. They are expected to target these systems with electronic countermeasures, network attack and exploitation tools in the event of a clash between the United States and China – for example, over Taiwan.

The above is just a brief snapshot of the geopolitical impact of a rising China. There are many more areas in which China is active and challenging U.S. supremacy.
The Century of China

The 21st century is likely to be dubbed the “Chinese century” in the way that the 20th century was the “American century.”  Of course, this does not mean that the United States is in decline and that China will be able to play as large a role in global affairs as the United States has done thus far.  The Chinese are still a very long way from that and the United States has by no means gone into eclipse as a global power.  What is more likely is that, just as during the Cold War, the United States will have to get used to dealing with other globally-dominant countries such as China and perhaps a resurgent Russia.  The world will thus become more complicated for American strategists as they contemplate a stronger and more-assertive China.  This new China will be seen not only as an increasingly powerful potential adversary, but one that they are also intertwined with in bonds of trade and finance and dependent upon economically.  The old concepts of friend and foe will become less relevant as a dichotomy because China is going to be both.

If you enjoyed this series on the global impact of the rise of China, consider Dr. Morag’s previous Global Security Series on Syria.

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