China's Global Impact: A Rising Dragon or Paper Tiger?
Many analysts and officials within the U.S. government have named China the number one pacing threat to the U.S. However, what is the current reality of that assessment?
Many claims have been made about China and its rise to becoming a prominent world superpower. With fluctuating relations between the U.S. and China and the prospect of war looming over the fate of Taiwan, it has led many to question what the true capabilities of China are. Are they indeed a rival to U.S. power and dominance, or have we made China out to be a more significant threat than it is?
China's rise is often depicted as an unstoppable force, leading many to believe it will soon surpass the United States as the world's economic powerhouse. China's economic growth has been remarkable, but concerns linger about the sustainability of its high debt levels and the need for structural reforms. Some economists argue that China's GDP figures may not accurately reflect the reality of its economic development. Some experts have even dismissed official GDP reporting as unreliable or false. However, other sources have claimed that official GDP reports are valid, leaving little to no consensus on how fast China is growing and whether it is outperforming the United States. There are a myriad of reasons why China would falsely report its GDP, from political image or legitimacy to ensuring investor confidence. While China has grown rapidly over the years, what seems unclear is how rapid said growth is and whether there are signs of the economy slowing down that Chinese officials do not want to report.
Low birth rates within China have continued to plague the nation that remains the most populated country in the world. The one-child policy has been a disaster for Chinese birth rates. While the policy quickly achieved what the government wanted, it did not consider the effect on future generations. The average number of children each couple needs to have to replace them in the workforce is 2.1. With most Chinese families only having one child, the next generation could not replace the old within the workforce. China ended its one-child policy in 2016 due to the aging population and low birth rates. However, the issue persists. In October 2023, a report from Reuters stated that China had experienced "the lowest figure since records began in 1949". With the one-child policy, boys were prioritized over girls, inflating the number of men in the country. The policy created an imbalance in demographics where there are too many men and not enough women for some men to form relationships and have children. The one-child policy also socially made the idea of large families unappealing, adding to that the expected drop that modern nations usually face as some women choose a career instead of becoming mothers in their younger years. China, due to its heavy-handed population control, has created a problem that is slowly bleeding its economy.
China's military modernization, especially its naval capabilities and missile systems, has continued since Xi Jinping took power. It is seen as a direct challenge to the military supremacy of the United States. The Chinese Air Force can field approximately 1,966 aircraft (multiple sources differ on this figure) consisting of fighters, attack aviation, bombers, and the like. The Chinese Army, or People’s Liberation Army (PLA), boasts new and advanced military vehicles and equipment by producing tanks, armored personnel carriers, and Infantry fighting vehicles. Chinese soldiers have significantly upgraded the equipment and weapons they use and their battle doctrines. The Chinese Navy is still behind the U.S. regarding technological advancement and sheer firepower. While China has more ships than the U.S., they are much smaller and lack the capabilities of frontline modern naval vessels. In the current age of naval power, where the aircraft carrier remains the most critical aspect of maritime dominance, China only has 3 to America's 11.
Another aspect of China's military that is in question is just how modernized it has become. Does it have enough equipment and logistical support to retain and replace its more advanced assets in a prolonged war with a near-peer force?
Chinese military leadership is dealing with internal corruption, particularly amongst its officer corps. Chinese ground troops, while the largest force in the world in terms of manpower are relatively untested in combat. While China has been involved in minor skirmishes, this does not translate to an army that can conduct multi-domain, large-scale combat operations. Another major challenge is their ability to project power; with the lack of naval assets previously mentioned, some analysts question China's ability to project power. For years, with aid from the U.S., Taiwan has turned its island into a fortress with a competent defense force; naval invasions are among the most complex military operations to conduct. While China outnumbers Taiwan on paper, China is limited on how many personnel and equipment it could land on the island nation. While China has made substantial investments in its military, the U.S. still maintains a significant advantage in terms of global power projection. China faces challenges in developing a blue-water navy and overcoming logistical hurdles.
China has made significant geo-political maneuvers in just this year alone. From economic agreements within the Middle East to its expansion in Africa, China has made clear its intention to be a significant player on the world stage. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) remains China's most important economic and geopolitical project in creating reliable trade routes and investing in or building the infrastructure within over 150 nations that the BRI crosses into. While China has been accused of taking advantage of economically poor countries, mainly in Africa, it seems that China's global political currency remains afloat. As a leading member of BRICS, a new economic and political block that seeks to challenge NATO supremacy, China has sought to take on a more prominent role as a global leader.
While China's rise is undeniable, it has many problems that currently slow its growth and overall capabilities. A comprehensive understanding of its power requires a nuanced approach. Whether or not it is genuinely a significant power or simply a paper tiger remains up for debate. Economic, military, technological, and diplomatic factors interplay in shaping China's global standing, and ongoing developments will influence the trajectory of its power in the coming years.
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