LONDON – Is China poised to become the world’s next superpower? This question is increasingly asked as China’s economic growth surges ahead at more than 8% a year, while the developed world remains mired in recession or near-recession. China is already the world’s second largest economy, and will be the largest in 2017. And its military spending is racing ahead of its GDP growth.
The question is reasonable enough if we don’t give it an American twist. To the American mind, there can be only one superpower, so China’s rise will automatically be at the expense of the United States. Indeed, for many in the US, China represents an existential challenge.
This is way over the top. In fact, the existence of a single superpower is highly abnormal, and was brought about only by the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The normal situation is one of coexistence, sometimes peaceful sometimes warlike, between several great powers.
For example, Great Britain, whose place the US is often said to have taken, was never a “superpower” in the American sense. Despite its far-flung empire and naval supremacy, nineteenth-century Britain could never have won a war against France, Germany, or Russia without allies. Britain was, rather, a world power – one of many historical empires distinguished from lesser powers by the geographic scope of their influence and interests.