It has become customary to talk of China as the world’s premier superpower of the future. And indeed, China is home to about one-quarter of the world’s population, and since the death of Mao, has departed from its isolationist foreign policy and economic course and surprised the rest of the world with blazing economic growth that has lasted more than 30 years. There are no countries on earth today where one does not come across Chinese goods, and in many regions, especially in its near abroad and in Africa – China has aggressively entered new markets, giving local or Western competitors stiff competition or even pushing them out altogether.

The Chinese government has also shown noteworthy skill in handling internal tensions, manoeuvring flexibly between interest groups, without shying away from the use of force to maintain control over the areas home to national minorities (Tibet, Eastern Turkestan), suppressing democracy protesters at universities and other dissidents or quashing religious movements (Falungong).

To a significant extent, China’s growing wealth has also been parlayed in recent years into modernization of its military, which at the international level, and especially in Japan, India, Russia and the US, has resulted in discussions as to whether China could become go from regional to global power also in terms of its military. To a certain extent, this ambition is also signalled by the Chinese agreement with the government of the Seychelles to use the islands as a Chinese naval base.

All of the above undoubtedly leaves quite an impression. And this is particularly so when we consider the background. In the last 60 years, China has gone from a fragmented semi-colony of the Western countries to one of the undisputed power centres of the world, and in the last 30 years it has also achieved an economic position that no one can ignore. In doing so, China has left its northern neighbours Russia and Japan behind in terms of power. As late as late 1945, Japan still occupied the huge north-eastern Chinese province of Manchuria and the country’s coastal provinces in summer 1945, while Russia’s predecessor the Soviet Union was the mentor as well as protégé (protector?) of communist China until a major dispute in the late 1950s.

Yet China’s rise into a leading world power is not a fait accompli. On the contrary. In fact Chinese politicians and diplomats have succeeded in creating an image of their country, of which Australian Sinologist Ross Terrill says that China is able to pull strings to punch above its weight. In spite of its outward splendour, China still faces myriad problems, which could prove exceedingly difficult or impossible for the current communist government to resolve.

In this context, we should start by looking at China’s geography and history. As US analyst George Friedman says, China is essentially an island: to the north contacts and communications are hindered by the Mongolian deserts and Siberian taiga; to the south, the Himalayas and the mountainous jungles of Southeast Asia; to the west are wildernesses and mountain ranges, the crossing of which presents an arduous prospect. Only the seas off the eastern coast offer the country relatively good links to the outside world. Here, major expenses come into play for building the infrastructure related to the ships and ports for crossing the long distances and marine traffic.

These are the roots of a certain historical curse – China’s coastal areas are always ahead of the inland areas, while inland areas are drained dry of resources. Economically and politically, the coast and inland areas have been in opposition.

This opposition became especially destructive in the later half of the 19th century, when after the two Opium Wars the great Western powers essentially subjugated the Chinese coastal areas. As a result, trade and capital followed by workforce became increasingly concentrated on the Pacific coast and the metropolises there -- Shanghai, Hongkong, Canton, Macau, Qingtao and so on.

It also meant the rise of two parallel societies: on one hand, the agrarian, traditional inland with its embrace of Confucian order; and on the other hand the modernizing, foreign market-oriented coastal society that absorbed Western ideologies.

The stratification of society, and the rise of new social classes (working class, modern bankers, Westernized intelligentsia) and the rivalry between provinces weakened central authority so much in the first decade of the 20th century that when student protests evolved into an anti-imperial revolution in 1911, it led not only to the fall of the dynasty but the fragmentation of the entire country.

The foundation on which unity began to be restored was no longer Confucianism, which had kept China together for centuries and shaped the identity of the civilization. It was something more modern – Chinese nationalism.

In the struggle for reunification, the communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists stood on opposite sides of the same traditional gap that has plagued China for centuries. Chiang represented the coast and the orientation to the outside world, while Mao stood for the hinterland and the peasantry. In essence, the civil war in China that ended in 1949 was won not so much by the communists but by the masses of peasants who had missed out on the fruits of foreign trade and modernization, and who were enticed with nationalist slogans and land reform.

Farmers stand at a wheat field at a village in Xiping county, Yunnan province, 22 February 2012. A severe drought has lingered in southwest China’s Yunnan province for three consecutive years, disrupting the lives of 6.3 million people and posing fire risks in the heavily-forested province. Photo: Scanpix

This excursus into history and geography should be placed in the context of contemporary China. Once again we see a deeply fractured country where the coastal provinces oriented at foreign trade, have left the inland part in the role of orphan child and sucked it empty of vitality. It is a little known but very salient fact that 80 percent of the Chinese population lives on only 20 percent of its territory. Naturally this 20 percent is situated on the Pacific coast. And, like in the early 20th century, the Beijing government will have a complicated time if it wants to retain its power and authority over the conflict-riven provinces.

The fact that the Beijing government is communist in form does not have any importance in the situation at hand. Actually the word “communist” should be replaced by the word “authoritarian” and this means having to sense the inevitability of the iron fist of the central government.

In Russia, the triumph of Western liberal democracy would likely mean that regions with weak ties to each other and a common identity would become independent and the unitary state would crumble. Likewise, if China abandoned communism (read: autocracy), it would lead to fragmentation. And just as in Russia the government holds the state together with nationalist slogans and by sowing xenophobia, the Chinese government follows the same model.

Beijing has had yet another lever to use in the last 30 years to help the central government to retain control of the provinces; and that is money. Rapid economic growth and centralized governance has made it possible to pump inland the money earned on the coasts. And although this has not proved capable of eliminating the conflicts, it has eased them somewhat.

China is now facing a situation where the economic crisis in the West threatens to sharply decrease the export-driven income. Naturally this means that the tensions that have gathered over the decades will start escalating, and it is possible that they could spill over into physical conflicts. If we add to this mix the demographic problems that face China – which could themselves set off extensive social chain reactions – we see that even in the best case, it will not be possible for China in the next few decades to realize the role of world leader it pretends to.

Furthermore, no large country can become a truly dominant superpower unless it has enough military might. China has been spoken of as making a military tiger’s leap in the past few years. But here, too, China has only left the impression that it can punch above its weight.

Chinese villagers perform a dragon dance along the village main street in Zhaiyinggu, southwest China s Guizhou province on February 5, 2012. China said retail sales surged 16.2 percent year on year to US $74 billion during the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, as consumers splashed out on food, wine and clothes. Hundreds of millions of people journey across the country during the holiday to celebrate with their families. Photo: Scanpix

If we look the Chinese arsenal next to the US’s military forces, there is really not much of a comparison. The US has ten active aircraft carriers, but China has only one, purchased from Russia and not completely finished (the former “Varyag”). It is planned to build two Chinese-made carriers, but even if they are finished, this will not be enough to wield global power on all proverbial seven seas. Moreover, an aircraft carrier is only a hub for squadrons of naval auxiliaries surrounding it, so China will need tens of other modern and high-tech vessels.

The situation with the Chinese air force is the same. Even though testing of China’s own J-20 stealth fighter have wound up successfully, US sources estimate that China will not be able to get the model ready for mass production before 2018. If we recall that the US developed its first stealth plane 30 years ago, China lags several decades behind its main rival, even if it is successful at industrial espionage.

And last but not least: China is not able to compete with the US financially either. Although Beijing increased defence spending by a bit more than 20 percent last year, the figure of 94 billion US dollars is several times off the 500 billion dollar US defence budget And the US army’s foreign missions are not financed from this amount.

Thus we can say that despite all of its impressive achievements, China stands face to face with a whole number of complex problems in the decades ahead, and these will inevitably curtail its rise on the global scale.

It is no wonder, then, that China is prepared to participate in alleviating the euro crisis, and has bought massive quantities of US government bonds. The Chinese government has no other choice, as a collapse of markets, including the financial markets, would be an unmitigated disaster, likely will wipe the current communist government and throw the country into the throes of decentralization.

As long as the communist central government is able to stimulate the people by manipulating cash flows, inciting nationalist sentiment and tantalizing the population with a bright future, the bulk of the Chinese people will see the communists as another historical dynasty thanks to whom China has returned to the ranks of the great powers of the world.   

Ambassador Mart Helme is the Editor-in-Chief of Maailma Vaade