An Interview with Dr. Russ Glenn: ‘China as Superpower’

Dr. Russ Glenn is a lecturer at the Leiden Institute for Area Studies at Leiden University. He focuses on Chinese politics and international relations. Prior to Leiden he completed his PhD at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge. He conducted his doctoral work on Chinese energy security needs in a thesis titled: “No Blood for Oil: The strategic implications of increased Chinese oil demand on the Sino-US relationship and the Oil Peace Paradox”, where he broke down the role of oil into the military and economic aspects of supply security, and interrogated the ability of China to successfully achieve oil security. He is particularly interested in military history, Chinese, and East-Asian history, politics, and international relations. Outside of academia he is a contributing analyst at the Wikistrat Consultancy, and has been a keen coach, competitor, and coxswain in rowing for the past 11 years at Cambridge and at Brown, and has also boxed for Cambridge.

Recently we spoke with Dr. Glenn on China affairs – how China would be as a Superpower.

Q. Currently when we talk about superpower, we definitely mean USA. But the way China is rising economically and militarily sings that sooner or later we will recognize China as superpower too.  Do you think China will get the recognition within the next two years or directly in 2013?

Russ Glenn: I think it depends how you define ‘superpower’. On some levels, China already has an outsized impact on the world. Economically, for example, China is already one of the most interconnected and vital members of the international system. In other areas, however, China’s relative strength is much less significant. China’s navy, for example, may not even be the most capable maritime force in the region, and remains but a fraction of the United States’. Moving beyond these traditional quantifications to considerations of soft power makes the situation even more opaque.

Dr. Russ Glenn

Even if you can quantify and rank all of these things, however, the perception of China as a superpower may be just as important as the reality. Many people around the world already think that the People’s Republic of China is the greatest economic power in the world, while in fact it’s GDP is slightly more than half that of America’s, and even less of the European Union’s. The fact that people believe it is bigger, or believe that the momentum has shifted toward China, can have a real impact in making it happen. This may be a dynamic at play in the military sphere as well: the US publically and openly defining China as an enemy could force it to build up its military to counter the perceived American threat, thus cementing its identity as a foe.

In the end, I think you have to figure out the context of what you mean by ‘superpower’. Alice Miller of the Hoover Institute has defined the term very rigidly as, to paraphrase, a state able to project dominating power and influence around the world, and capable of global hegemony. In common usage it often seems to mean a really important country. By the first definition, China is certainly not a superpower, while by the second it definitely is.

In my own opinion, China is not a superpower by the more strict sense of the word, and won’t be one for some time to come. Too many factors, including the power of both American and other East Asian actors, will continue to confound China’s efforts to become a regional hegemon, let alone a global one. Even more importantly however is the fact that the domestic underpinnings of China’s growth may be weaker than commonly thought as well. While we see China as having this vast and growing impact on the world, I expect that domestic issues take up the vast majority of the Chinese leadership’s time and focus. Economic inequality, demographic pressure, corruption, legitimacy fears, political infighting – these are merely some of the more visible issues that threaten China’s continued economic growth, and thus its rise. I am cautiously optimistic about the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to ‘muddle through’ (to use a phrase of Bill Bishop’s) these myriad difficulties and continue to grow, but the path will not be an easy or pre-determined one. Yes, China is a superpower in that is among the most important states in the world, but no, it will not be a global hegemon within the next couple decades, let alone the next couple years.

Q. Will there be two Superpowers – USA and China or China will be the lone Superpower?

Russ Glenn: By the middle of this century, I believe that the US and China will both be players in an overall more equal world. To put it another way, I see the world as becoming more multipolar, with less of a gap separating any one superpower from the rest. Some states will remain more powerful than others in certain aspects – for example, I expect the United States to retain the world’s strongest military, while China will likely have become the world’s largest economy – but overall the situation will be significantly less skewed than it is now. This will, perhaps, be even more pronounced on a regional, rather than a national, level. Asia as a whole will be much more powerful relative to North American and Western Europe. In December 2012, the United State’s National Intelligence Council released a report called Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds (PDF) that sketches out a similar picture in some of their possible scenarios.

I don’t see a situation whereby China becomes the world’s sole superpower largely because I think the PRC’s rise will eventually slow and the gap between it and the US is still quite large in many ways. I don’t foresee a likely scenario whereby the United State’s ‘collapses’ or otherwise dramatically loses power in the international system. The current system contains many structural aspects that benefit the US, and I don’t see that system being dramatically overthrown in the near future. As a result I expect change to be relatively gradual. America’s high relative power level now, coupled with geographical, ideological, and diplomatic benefits will help to maintain American influence worldwide for some time to come.

Q. If China will emerge as the only Superpower, what policy will it adopt towards the rest of the world? Friendlier attitude contrary to the aggressive US policies? Or China will be very aggressive too.

Russ Glenn: As I said above, I don’t see China becoming the world’s only superpower by the middle of the century at least. Having said that, I do think China will be a very and increasingly important actor, so it’s useful to think about the policies it may adopt. As for the ‘aggression’ of the policies of either the US or China, that’s something that needs to be more clearly defined. It’s relative, right? For example, and leading into the next question, both the PRC’s and Japan’s actions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands could be seen as overly aggressive…but it depends on who you ask. If you asked either a Japanese or a Chinese policymaker about the US’s actions on the issue they would likely describe them as less aggressive than those of the opposing state. Anyway, would be useful to be more clear about the context of what you mean in that respect.

I do believe there is room for both optimism and pessimism as to how contentious Chinese policy may be. On the optimistic side Chinese policymakers have explicitly put China forward as a peaceful, status-quo actor for many years. Whether under Deng’s 24-character formula, Jiang’s New Security Concept, or Hu’s peaceful rise, peaceful development, and harmonious society ideas, the PRC leadership has frequently and consistently tried to reassure others as to the benign character and intentions of its growth. In many ways, this is borne out by history as well. As Taylor Fravel has shown, China’s use of force in international disputes is less aggressive than often assumed, while Alastair Iain Johnston has detailed how Chinese involvement in international institutions such as the UN and WTO is at a greater level than would be expected for a state at its level of development.

On the other side, there are troubling indicators as well. China’s actions in the South and East China Seas seems to indicate an increasingly aggressive foreign policy stance, at least within the region. Similarly, early positive involvement in developing areas such as Africa has been met with increasing criticism. While its important not to overstate the long term significance of specific events, the overall trend is worrying. Compounding the fears is the greater role and increasingly conflictual tenor of Chinese nationalism. From anti-French riots before the Beijing Olympics to anti-Japanese unrest in 2012, the world is seeing more contentious Chinese assertions of identity. While the CCP claims often claims that these actions are beyond its power and that it is in fact constraining potentially unstable nationalism elements, my own (shared) belief is that nationalism is increasingly being coopted by the CCP as a way of helping to legitimize party rule. As a result it is likely that nationalism will continue to be a major driver of Chinese policy, perhaps pushing it in more ‘aggressive’ directions.

My own view is somewhat in the middle again. I expect that as China picks up more global interests, whether it be economic involvement, resource needs, cultural endeavors, institutional commitments, or security exercises, its foreign policy will become more similar to that of other globally interested powers, like the United States. The shape of the system will, to a certain extent, shape the tenor of the involvement. Having said that, I suspect that Chinese nationalism and ideological/legitimacy insecurities will continue to give CCP foreign policy a bit of an unpredictable, potentially choleric twinge, particularly within Asia, or over relations with Japan, Taiwan, or the United States. This may be in contrast to a more benign and self-assured foreign policy stance in other areas of the world.

Q. Will this tiny island dispute with Japan can tell about China’s future role as Superpower. I mean what if China really uses military power and a war breaks out?

Russ Glenn: As alluded to in the answer above, I think China’s actions in the East and South China Seas are troubling, but may not be indicative of a larger overall pattern of Chinese foreign policy. The Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute has a complicated mix of motivations that both started it and maintain it. Beyond the historical and cultural clashes with Japan and the potential economic value of the claims there are numerous reasons why the dispute has become a new hotspot. Domestically, it is worth remembering that the Chinese response kicked off at a time of relative uncertainty in China: the Bo Xilai affair was still simmering, Xi Jinping had disappeared for a fortnight, and above all the 18th Party Congress loomed. In some ways, the dispute over the islands may have been beneficial for the CCP as a distraction, at least at the time. The same goes for the Japanese leadership; nationalistic elements within both states played a role in creating and heightening the issue.

I’m not sure what conclusions we can draw from China’s overall actions as a major power, because relations with Japan are often exaggerated. This is beyond my area of expertise, but I would hazard a guess that being able to use the specter of past Japanese militarism is a useful political tool for the CCP. Both domestically and within the region it allows them to attempt to isolate Japan, carve out stronger identities in opposition to it, and raise the CCP itself as the defender of China and beyond, linking the party/government with nationalistic sentiment. As a result I’m not sure how broadly analysts can apply Chinese actions towards Japan onto a framework of ‘what China is like’.

What if war were to break out over the islands? Well, as Taylor Fravel has argued, to a real extent, a low level of simmering conflict is already the ‘new normal’. Maritime patrols are common, and both parties appear to be testing each other’s readiness with aerial incursions as well. China’s ongoing naval (and ‘coast guard’) modernization along with Japanese plans for the islands would seem to point toward an increasingly militarized status quo for some time to come. While in my view outright war over the islands still seems unlikely, Hugh White, noted Australian strategist, has offered a more pessimistic prediction of possible war in 2013. Let’s use that as a start to answer your second question as to what it means if war breaks out.

First of all, the conflict over the islands could take many forms along the spectrum of escalation, with posturing, as now, at one end, and full-blown nuclear attacks at the other. Broader escalation would obviously be pretty bad for everyone. Tracing the likely outcome of the war is beyond my scope, but James Holmes of the US Naval War College offers a quick summary here. He is relatively positive about the Japanese Self Defense Force’s warfighting ability, even without US direct assistance. American involvement would definitely tip the balance away from Beijing, but with the additional danger of increased escalation both in the intensity and geographic scope of the conflict. Anyway, getting further down the rabbit hole is pretty interesting, but probably beyond this discussion. The implications of a hot war over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands would be dependent on the level of escalation both vertically and horizontally, damages to both sides, whether or not the US and other actors became involved, and how the conflict (and just as important, the perception of the conflict) played out. Short of a fait accompli or non-conflictual victory I expect most Chinese-initiated ‘wins’ over the islands may actually decrease Chinese power in the region by increasing anti-Chinese balancing and sentiment.

Q. How USA, Britain, France and Germany will react in such situation regarding that there are US bases in Japan. Will the West officially be on Japan’s side?

Russ Glenn: As I said above, ‘war’ involves a broad range of policy actions and events. Similarly, ‘the West’ is not a unitary actor. I can foresee a vertically and horizontally limited conflict over the islands that would not drag in other states, but it’s also possible, as you imply, that a broader conflict would lead to attacks on Japan and potentially US bases. This would almost certainly incur a robust American response, and bring down international opprobrium on Chinese decision makers. Attacking American bases or forces either in Japan or elsewhere would represent a significant escalation of the conflict that would simultaneously decrease China’s chances of ‘success’ (if not entirely destroying them on a broader strategic level) and increase international criticism.

As for other countries, US included, being involved in the conflict, I think it depends on their interests. Responding to attacks on US forces would trigger an American response because it is not a US interest to allow that to happen. Below such an event however, states would probably get involved in line with how their national interests are served or threatened. For example, it is of vital interest to the US, and many other states, including China and the Western European states you mentioned, to maintain global freedom of the seas and seaborne trade. Were a conflict over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands to threaten that, it is not unlikely that the US, with the backing of other interested actors, would become involved. Whether or not this involvement took the form of military action would depend upon myriad factors. To put it more succinctly, I don’t think that ‘the West’ would automatically be on any particular side because that hypothetical involves way too many factors that would be influential in determining the answer. I believe the danger of such a thing happening, however, is one motivator of restraint for both parties.

Q. Will Russia act passively and only monitor how situations develop? Or do you think Mr. Putin’s government will give a hand towards diplomatic solutions to this problem.

Russ Glenn: I’m not sure I’m well versed enough in the Russian side of things to offer much of an informed opinion here. Again, I see war over the islands as unlikely, and at this point don’t see how Russia would be interested in taking an active role even were conflict to break out. I’m not sure that Russian interests necessarily align with either Japan or Russia, and I suspect that their best-case scenario involves both of them being distracted with each other while driving oil prices up due to the uncertainty or whatever else. Greater Russian diplomatic involvement may be welcomed by China as a counterweight to US-led initiatives, but I don’t think it’s greatly likely as it wouldn’t be popular with the US or probably with other regional actors. In general, China seems reluctant to open the issue to multilateral venues anyway.

Q. China has recently introduced its first aircraft carrier. What move China can make as next step to consolidate its position as Superpower. It’s clear now that China is not a regional power any more rather entered into larger periphery regarding world politics. This also means China will continue increasing its military spending. Am I right?

Russ Glenn: I think you’re definitely right about China increasing its military spending. What is perhaps more important, however, is not just the increase, but how the money is being spent. There’s a lot of data out there on China’s growing expenditures and debates about how much etc. (the OSD Reports on China security developments as well as China’s own white papers are useful here), but for understanding the level the Chinese military is at and where it’s going its necessary to check out how the money has being spent. China’s military is already very good at some things (territorial defense, area defense/denial) while being extremely limited at others (power projection, joint operations). Much of the modernization is based around filling the gaps gradually. None of this is illegitimate or somehow unexpected. National growth and economic growth means that you have more money to spend on an increasing basket of security needs – it makes sense that the military would be getting stronger. What is less clear is how that increases Chinese capabilities relative to its strategic needs. Asian military spending is increasing as a whole, partially in response to increased Chinese spending. That may complicate some of the CCP’s goals.

As for the Liaoning aircraft carrier, it’s a good sign that China’s military power is increasing in some ways, and definitely shows just how fast the state can make something happen when they want to. However, it also highlights just how far China has to go. The carrier is one updated, relatively outdated platform. China lacks the pilots or airframes or training to make it operational. All of that may happen pretty quickly, but its still a long way to go. An aircraft carrier may be of limited use in some East and South China Sea conflict scenarios as well. Again, the carrier, and carrier program, is legitimate too. Many major powers have aircraft carriers, and maritime airpower and carrier strike groups are a tools of foreign policy.

In the end I think that Chinese and Asian military spending will increase for some time to come. The pace at which China’s military will improve is impressive, but it will still take a long time to gain regional superiority over the United States, let alone global. That is not the only goal, of course. I think American observers often overstate the importance that the US has in Chinese strategic plans, and there are certainly many other non-US oriented reasons for China to increase its military power. However, in keeping with the theme of the discussion, and hearkening back to your first question, I think the military aspect of the power balance between the US and China is the one that it will take the longest for China to overcome, if ever.

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1 comment on “An Interview with Dr. Russ Glenn: ‘China as Superpower’”

  1. Md. Rashidul Hassan

    Which nation is more literate, creative and technological transfer they are Develop nation so above consideration which country contain those consideration simply they are more develop than other country.

    Soon or near soon who will be superpower only the God knows and I think USA is more superpower than other.

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