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Jim Hoge has been the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine since 1992.  He holds the Peter G. Peterson Chair at the Council on Foreign Relations, and is a director of[…]

The country is a “formidable opponent,” but the United States will remain the world’s leading superpower for the foreseeable future.

Question: Will China surpass the U.S. as a superpower?

Jim Hoge: Maybe someday, no time soon.  It’s very impressive what they’ve done over the last quarter-century, but remember China is still primarily a poor country with four to five hundred million poor rural based population, a string of very successful entrepreneurial operation along the coastline.  Any economic indexes except a gross one, gross GNP they will 25 years from now still be quite far behind us.  Militarily, they’re of course strengthening as you do as you get more prosperous, but they’re way, way behind the military capabilities of the United States.  In technology they’ve become extremely good at the application of technology, but they’re still way behind in innovation itself.

So to put things in perspective: China is a formidable country now and it is going to be more so, but it is not a rival of us in power across the whole spectrum, political power, economic power, cultural power. 

Now having said that it is going to be the number two country in all of these kinds of things coming up and what is beginning to happen, particularly since the financial debacle if you will of the last two years brought on by the United States and has weakened us at least for a period of time here as an economic force and as a model for other people, China has suddenly moved up the calendar it had in its head of when it would have to get really involved in global governing issues because they saw a vacuum.  They saw an opportunity, so they’re doing a…  They have a more aggressive campaign now for international investment, for building a blue water navy to protect their sea lanes all the way through the Indian Ocean, for straightening out their borders by telling neighbors that this piece of land really belongs to China and so on.  Friction is building up between the United States and China and between China and some other countries, but it is not the kind that brought on World War I or World War II.  They are not an expansionist nation.  They’re not an ideological nation.  

They are a great power on the making and power never is transferred or shared easily in the international system.  You’ve got to grab for it and they’re beginning to do more of that.  Now that is a problem for us, but there are also many opportunities in engaging with China and we have to be careful to keep our sense of balance about what is really a great national security threat and what really is the kind of friction that comes up in this anarchistic thing we call the international system and I think it is more the latter than it is the former. 

I don’t think China has any ideas or any ambitions to end up in a first class confrontation with the United States.  They’re interested in developing China and that is going to be another 25 to 30 years of heavily focused efforts on their own economy and their own big problems of democracy, of environmental protection, of worker rights, of a political system which in some ways is very impressive and in other ways is just antique compared to the kind of economy they’re becoming.  The idea that China is going to literally just keep going at a 10% growth rate and whatever problem comes up they will deal with is just not realistic, so they have some dips in the road coming just like we all do over a historical span and for us the real challenge is to try and incorporate them gradually, although at a faster pace than with the case before the recession, incorporate them into the international system so that it is a win/win situation that they win by being a part of the kind of global system that we have setup and then I think you can avoid the most cataclysmic kind of scenarios that you can here. 

The problem there though is that the international system is essentially a western creation and all the major bodies whether we’re talking about the G20, the G8, the IMF, the World Bank have rules and norms of behavior that we’ve set and they’re pretty good.  They’re mostly transparent.  They’re mostly democratic, but these rising powers of which China is the biggest, but Brazil is another, Turkey is another and you’ve seen what they did recently as far as Iran was concerned, they want to be not just the beneficiaries of the international system.  They quite rightly as they rise in influence and power they want to be among those who are the rule setters on how is the system to behave.  What kind of a voice are they going to have in it?  That is a very big challenge for us because so far we have done very little to transform the international system and its institutions since just after World War II, the most obvious example being the security counsel of the UN where the great powers of today are only partially represented and some of them are left out totally like Japan, like Germany, so if you want the biggest long term challenge to the United States I think it is in redoing the international system so it is more representative of the world we are in and are going to become than anything else.

Question: What could happen within China?

Jim Hoge: There are lots of tensions building up in China.  At the moment they do not represent a national movement with linkages between say the workers in Manchuria who are upset not being paid except once a year or those out in some of the non ethnic places like Tibet and Xinjiang where they are upset about pollution and worker rules that are almost inhuman, 27 hours a day, 8 days a week kind of thing.  Those are at this stage not unmanageable, but they are very big problems that China has to deal with and they’re making some efforts. 

They have a big demographic problem too because of the one child policy, which has been in place now for well over a quarter of a century they have stopped growing in population and actually they’re going to go off of a cliff here very soon.  They’re going to go from having been a young nation to being a very old one and without a sufficient safety net for a very large elderly population.  They’re also going to have not enough workers for the workforce, so that is a problem they have to deal with and then there is pollution. 

There is no place on this globe where they are polluting to the extent that they are in China.  You don’t see that much of it if all you are is in Shanghai or Hong Kong or even Beijing, but if you go into the interior where the new industrial cities are being setup it is awesome and they’re running out of water.  Their deserts are growing. 

In other words—I could go on—they have a series of big systemic problems to deal with and there is no sign at the moment that they can’t deal with them, but there is going to be a point in time because they are developing a middle class and a big one and middle classes when they don’t get the full range of powers that they’re looking for, individual freedom, work opportunities and so forth, is the most revolutionary of all classes and China is facing a period of time coming up where the middle class, which at the moment thinks it’s benefiting from the one party political system, no longer thinks that it is. And then can they make the transition evolutionary rather than in a revolutionary way to more pluralistic politics? That is a huge challenge.  It’s not quite there yet, but it’s coming. 

Right now because they have been a very efficient set of engineers at the top of their government, the middle class of China is more pro one party rule.  They’re not that dissatisfied, but I would bet a bottom dollar that they’re going to be at some point. 

Recorded May 28, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman