NorSec 2018: Reflecting on China’s Rise to Power

In recent years there has been increasing talk about China’s rise as a superpower. There are diverging opinions on how this rise is coming about and will play out, and probably none have been able to fully capture the reality of China’s ascent. The bottom line is that China has experienced a tremendous growth both economically and politically. It has become a state that others simply must consider when making decisions. China has set its ambitions on the global political scene, and with their great power follows a new and different power balance which we still haven’t seen the full results of. This year, the Nordic Security Conference (NorSec) in Oslo explores China’s emergence as a superpower, and the implications for European security cooperation. YATA Norway’s goal is that the young people can discuss the different security issues and share knowledge on the factors and policies that are changing with China’s growth and global ambition. This article investigates some of the issues on the topic and provides a background for the conference participants to engage with. See you at NorSec 2018!

The origin of China’s power

Historically China is one of the world’s four ancient civilizations, dating back to the Shang Dynasty more than 3000 years ago. Many other great dynasties of powerful families were to follow. The Han Dynasty is known for starting the Silk Road connecting China with Central Asia and Europe and for truly beginning to unite the vast multi-ethnic country. Through medieval times China became one of the most culturally sophisticated and technologically developed nations in the world, before being consumed by the rise and fall of the Mongol Empire. The Sui Dynasty reunited the Chinese nation, and despite changing dynasties and political conflict, China continued to blossom as a resourceful, imaginative and cultural state. They prospered as the inventors of paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass, attracting merchants and travellers from all over the world. With time followed both great progress and huge setbacks for China.

The last dynasty, The Qing Dynasty, was ended by the Republic Revolution of 1911, but because of the ensuing civil wars, the Republic of China was not yet firmly established across the country. The major Chinese civil war ended in 1949 and Mao Zedong was able to officially proclaim the People´s Republic of China. This began the Communist era of long stability, and the communist party’s economic modernisation “Reform and Opening Up” policy of 1978 secured China’s phenomenal growth that we today recognise.

After Chairman Mao’s death the country experienced a struggle for power with the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests. As a result, China had to slowly open up more towards the global economy and loosened the government’s control over its citizens. In some ways China was left out of major global developments Post Cold War, due to its closed state structures. You could make an argument that China today is a revisionist power. Such a case is made by the US academic Walter Russell Mead. The claim is made in light of China’s perceived aspirations to change the global order, challenging the liberal status quo set by the United States. International relations professor John Ikenberry opposes such claims. Instead he argues that China and other so-called revisionist states are actually so integrated into the international system through organisations such as the UN, the IMF and the WTO that these states have more to lose than to win if they should choose to follow a revisionist agenda.

Today China is a major power in South East Asia and in the world. It has with greater assertion than before entered the international scene and is increasing its interaction and influence all over the globe. But with China’s rapid economical and social development they are facing new issues and changing goals. The Chinese government is concerned about the economic growth as a degrading factor for resources and the environment. Another challenge is the widening social and economic divides between the rural and urban areas. Citizens have been forcibly displaced because of the government’s need to further develop areas for economical expansion, leading to protests across China. Although most Chinese people have experienced improved living standards and increased freedoms, government control remains high and true democratic participation is lacking.

A rise comparable to the United States

Compared to other rising powers of modern times, China and the US are the only two great powers that have managed their rise while maintaining relative peace. Other major economies like Britain, Germany, Russia and Japan all got or defended their positions through armed conflict or outright war against each other. Academics Barry Buzan and Michael Cox claim that there are many similarities between the rise of the US between 1865 and 1945 and today’s China. The similarities are geographical, economical and demographic: comparable land area sizes, large populations and high rankings in terms of GDP at the time of their respective rises. Both countries have benefitted from relatively calm and co-operative international climates during their rise. Sure there was conflict, but the US and China were largely able to bypass many of the issues other rising powers have faced such as large scale war, disease, resource scarcity or internal political upheaval in their territories. They both experienced great civil wars before they started their rise, and both benefitted from foreign direct investments.

In policy, both China and the US focused on economical engagement with other parts of the world, while also concerning themselves with economic self-development. They enforced a line of protectionism, kept a low profile regionally and internationally, and showed overall military caution. Despite a general restraint in military spending, both countries did enforce their military capacities slowly but steadily, especially at sea. The US had their “Great White Fleet” in the 1890s, and today China’s blue-water navy pursues control in their near waters, as witnessed by the current territorial disputes in the South China. Both countries are dedicated participants in the international system but place great primacy on preserving if not also expanding national sovereignty.

Today’s China under President Xi and challenges ahead

Speaking last year on national security in Beijing, President Xi Jinping identified three processes that from Chinese perspectives defined geopolitics in 2017: the multi-polarisation of the world, the globalisation of the economy and the democratisation of international relations. They all represent threats and opportunities for China. President Xi declared that China’s response will be the same no matter what happens: “We must maintain our strategic steadiness, strategic confidence and strategic patience”.

The first process mentioned by Xi, the multi-polarisation of the world, points to the recognition that there is one single dominant power in the world. Rather, several states and regions are involved in the balance of power. Countries we traditionally have considered to be significant powers are all facing some sort of fundamental troubles. The Russian Federation might today seem economically weakened and politically isolated. The European Union has taken a political hit and lost some of its economic weight following Brexit and increased nationalism among many of its member states. Indeed, people all over the world seem to place renewed importance on nation-state itself, withdrawing somewhat from the international liberal order. The US, not only deeply affected by political divides, lacking in global leadership and credibility under president Trump, is still pinned down in the Middle East and seemingly unsure of what role to play internationally. With the traditional great powers struggling, the new world order could belong to China as much as any other.

Such a claim to new dominance may be wrongly perceived by China. The US is still the single country that has the most influence across the globe. Not necessarily longer a hegemonic superpower, but it is still the world’s largest economy and military by far. While the EU currently may seem weakened by Brexit and populist movements, there are also European forces that work against these developments and prove that the set-back may be temporary.

History shows that international power shifts cause problems. China has expanded its influence and become the biggest manufacturing centre of the world. Since opening up in the 1970s the Chinese economy has quadrupled in size. Beyond pure economic influence, today’s China has expanded its diplomatic efforts into the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Also factoring in China’s large military growth, it is apparent that China is a credible rival to global power for the US, the EU and Russia. Some of the consequences to the new rivalry may be increased distrust, tension and conflicts among the competitors, not just in the region around China, but globally. It is hard to predict everywhere such contests may occur, but as we have already seen they could be territorial in nature like the sovereignty dispute in the South China Sea, or be connected to infrastructural development like China’s Belt and Road Strategy, or for the control of Arctic resources and routes.

A new world order?

When president Xi talks about “the democratisation of international relations” he is speaking about China and other countries challenging the liberal world order that was established by the Western powers. China’s power will challenge and may propose to replace that order with new institutions or changed bilateral relationships. As previously noted, fighting the existing order rather than joining it may not be in China’s interest, mainly because China is already deeply embedded in the current international system and has adapted to grow with it. Or is that too convenient a thought from a Western perspective? Believing that China will rather play by the rules than change them may prove to be naïve.

The increased economic and political strength of not only China, but also other Asian countries, could change the world order into one dominated by Asian perspectives economically, politically and culturally. China’s great importance may lead the US to engage primarily with it, and not its partners in Europe. If left on their own, how will the Europeans adapt to rely on themselves? NATO as we know it might dissolve. The main factor that decides where the US puts its attention is the global balance of power. That the balance has already changed is evidenced by the “Pivot to Asia” policy initiated by president Obama. When the US changes, everyone else must as well. Much will depend on exactly how that change happens.


The author of this article is Stine Rønnes, Director of Communications for YATA Norway. Stine is a graduate student of Political Science at the University of Oslo. She is a former conscript of the Norwegian Armed Forces and an intern at the think tank Agenda. The arguments made in this text express the views of the author and are not necessarily shared by YATA Norway.