It has already been certain for a while: a new superpower is in the rise, the People’s Republic of China. Having given up its socialistic economic dogmas in 1978, it was predictable even then, given the huge geography it possesses, with the largest population in the world, and brutal efficiency in implementing economic reforms; all these factors have been in China’s favor as its burgeoning economy, which is now second in the world, overtakes that of Japan and is now next only to that of the U.S., at least in terms of purchasing power parity.
In retrospect, the evolution of great powers has been different at the dawn of the 21st century as compared to the rise of their predecessors, from the Romans to the Ottomans to the British to the French. Scientific and technological advancements and the invention of modern telecommunication systems meant that realizing international domination required more than military supremacy; diplomacy and global alignments took up important roles in defining a superpower.
The United States flexed its military muscles in the 19th century over its neighbors like Mexico and even far countries like the Philippines, extending its territories across the entire North American continent and even across the Pacific Ocean; it later began formulating a new paradigm of global domination with diplomacy, economic power, and military might. With the advent of the Cold War, both the USSR and the U.S. had the same approach to foreign policy as they tried to assert global dominance: with the respective advantages that each enjoyed, they tried to appease other countries to make them their allies.
Thus the status of a superpower in our time is defined not just in economic and military spirit but in the political will and the diplomatic skill that a country has in winning the confidence of other countries. On the one hand, besides having been one of the most totalitarian states in history, the Soviets mastered this art, suggesting that for the impoverished masses of the third world the socialist model could provide them a better life compared to the liberal and democratic values of the West; on the other, despite being the oldest democracy, the U.S. managed to win alignments with monarchies like Saudi Arabia and the military rulers of Pakistan.
China’s approach seems to be somewhat distinctive: instead of making friends, it is making foes with the aim of attaining superpower status. The major countries in its neighborhood—Japan, India, Australia, South Korea—all are skeptical about Chinese intentions and have already woken up to the threat that the dragon can possess in the future and have started taking precautionary measures to counter it. A quadrilateral grouping is already in the making consisting of the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia to counter mischievous Chinese future intentions. Those neighbors from whom it enjoys support are countries heavily dependent on China or countries that are afraid of its economic, political, and military power.
This was not the way that the U.S. or Soviets tried to assert their superpower position. Military valor and political influence apart, it was their diplomacy and appeasement policy that won them allies. Communist regimes naturally allied to Moscow might have been an exception, but both the central figures of the Cold War used factors advantageous to them in appeasing other countries, and others benefited from them.
The recent Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is another instance of how the Chinese think they can gain international supremacy. Instead of just boycotting of the ceremony, China summoned the ambassadors of those countries having diplomatic relations with Norway and issued a demarche to boycott the ceremony. This short-tempered, diplomatically unprecedented behavior has only given China the appearance of an immature country despite its great civilization. The Chinese response to the protests supportive of the Tibetan cause during the Beijing Olympics in other countries is as irresponsible as its reaction to the Nobel episode.
It looks as if the Chinese authorities are under the illusion that their economic and military might will serve them in attaining international support. Already surrounded by powerful countries like Russia, Japan, India, and Australia, Chinese influence in its own neighborhood is likely to decline despite its economic and military power, with the two most unstable countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, facing their own extinction and as the democratic aspirations of the people of Myanmar and North Korea grow to the point where their supportive governments are set to collapse.
In the future we will have a powerful China militarily and economically, but not politically and diplomatically, with neighbors skeptical, other superpowers cautious, and even its own citizens distressed, and the red dragon will be compared with Nazi Germany as it drags economic might and military impudence into foreign relations in its thirst for superpower status.