Stop Calling China a “Rising Power”

By Benedicta Kwarteng

People’s Liberation Army officers during a visit by SECDEF to Beijing in 2018
Image Credit: Amber Smith/DVIDS

President Xi Jinping’s China is at the center of the world stage and is usually referred to as a “rising power” in both academic and non-academic settings. But this term no longer accurately captures China’s hegemonic level of growth. Officially classifying China as a world power would more accurately reflect its influence on global markets and other countries’ policymaking.

The Biden administration’s core foreign policy agenda is aimed at countering China; Australia, India, and many others have also taken a keen interest in confronting the country. Rallied on the other side are Russia, North Korea, Iran, and most recently Taliban-run Afghanistan.

Moreover, a survey of 20,000 people ranked China the second most powerful country in the world, explaining that powerful nations “shape global economic patterns, preoccupy policymakers, and tend to have strong defense and military.” 

China clearly meets this definition: it has the second-largest economy in the world and the third most powerful military according to the annual Global Fire Power rankings. Continuing to classify China as a “rising power” ignores its increasing power over the past few decades.

The end of the Cold War brought about a new world order, with the United States as a sole superpower country and many middle-power countries dubbed “rising powers.” These “new power” nations shared an ability to change the dynamics of the international system. In the mid-2000s before the financial crisis hit, Britain, Russia, India, China, snd South Africa were the BRICS considered “rising powers.”

According to a policy brief from the Norwegian Policy Building Resource Center, such new powers seek to change the international system by “seeking a greater voice in international institutions and building political bonds through regional organizations.” 

The economic and military relevance of a country can also justify their classification as a “rising power.” Some investment banks measure the market relevance of a nation by whether they have above-average growth potential. However, widespread disagreement remains over what it truly means to be a rising power.

China and India were obvious rising powers, since the size of their population meant they had large domestic economies. But nowadays the vagueness of the term “rising power” complicates understanding China by depicting it as a rising power rather than a world power. As its power in the international system continues to grow, it is increasingly critical that policymakers and politicians alike classify it accordingly.

Critics may argue that calling China anything other than a “rising power” does not diminish the threat it poses. While this may be true, world leaders must also be careful not to underestimate this threat through inaccurate rhetoric. 

The U.S. especially must change its language when it confronts China. Continuously terming China a “rising power” prevents allies and developing nations from fully understanding its current position on the world stage. 

China is currently the biggest trading partner for most countries in Africa and Asia, and this past year China overtook the U.S to become the EU’s biggest trading partner. China’s claiming of this title contributes greatly to its hegemonic expansion across the globe.

Unfortunately for the U.S., China’s significant economic influence also allows it to shape countries’ political ideologies. Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China convinced over 70 BRI participatory countries to voice support for its human rights crackdowns. 

Now, as domestic support for President Xi is wavering and the BRI is in danger of losing momentum, it is even more important for the United States to rally its allies against China’s leadership once and for all. 

But to properly counter China, the U.S. must first correctly define its place in the world. China is clearly no longer just a “rising power” or a passing fad, which its immense global influence reveals. 

The U.S. and its allies should recognize this and classify China more appropriately. While this alone will not diminish China’s influence, it is an important and necessary step towards eventually doing so. 

Benedicta Kwarteng is a writer for the Review. She studies International Relations and Political Science at the University of Hartford.

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