Andrew Latham, “China: A great power but not a superpower”


Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C.


China: A great power but not a superpower

by Andrew Latham, Opinion Contributor – 04/06/23 9:00 AM ET

Underpinning this Cold War narrative is the assumption that China is a superpower, a peer-competitor of the United States playing roughly the same role as that played by the Soviet Union during the actual Cold War. And therein lies the rub; for whatever else it might be, China is simply not a superpower — and has little prospect of becoming one in any realistically conceivable future. 

Viewed dispassionately and in the cold light of realpolitik, of course, China is unambiguously more than just another player on the world stage. It is unambiguously a “great power” — a country possessing both substantial instruments of national power and the will to use these instruments to influence political outcomes around the world. Beijing has a modern and growing nuclear arsenal, an impressive fleet of over 600 satellites (including 229 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites), the world’s largest navy (measured in terms of number of vessels), potent cyber capabilities and economic clout that few other nations can match. On those grounds alone it must be considered a very powerful country.

So, China is unquestionably a great power. But a superpower? No way.

Based on both the original definition of the term and the experience of the Soviet-American Cold War, in order to qualify as a superpower, a state must possess sufficient military, economic and cultural power not only to influence events around the world but to shape international norms and rules to its advantage. In short, superpowers are distinguished from merely great powers in that they are not just consequential global players with a significant role to play on the world stage, but have the full panoply of hard, soft and sharp power resources necessary to dominate and shape that stage. 

Thus defined, in the post-World War II era, both the United States and the Soviet Union were clearly superpowers. Both – in their own ways and to varying degrees – had the power, reach and ambition necessary to dominate and shape the space of international politics for over 40 years.

But China today falls far short of superpower standing. To be sure, China dominates its home region economically and exercises considerable influence farther afield. But it lacks the ability to project military power beyond its immediate hinterland, is facing a concerted effort to balance it diplomatically and militarily across the Indo-Pacific region, has almost no soft power resources to exploit, is not the hub of a globe-spanning alliance system and remains more a rule-taker than rule-maker in the global institutional space.

All this being the case, the conclusion is undeniable: While China is unquestionably both a regional power and a great power, when it comes to superpower status, it simply doesn’t make the cut.

What the U.S. is dealing with in China is a regional great power with perhaps pretensions to becoming something greater but no real prospect of realizing those pretensions. A responsible and restrained U.S. grand strategy would be focused on that challenge, on prudently balancing a great power as it seeks to assert its regional dominance and seek a somewhat larger role on the wider world stage. An irresponsible and unrestrained U.S. grand strategy, on the other hand, would inflate that challenge, conjuring up in place of a plateauing great power a phantasmagorical superpower bent on global domination — a monster that it must go abroad to contain, if not destroy.

Let’s hope “responsible and restrained” carries the day.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @aalatham.


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