BEIJING // Did the coming out party for China’s first aircraft carrier symbolise the rise of the world’s next superpower?

It depends. Like the country, the answer is complicated.

After two decades of nearly constant double-digit increases in military budgets that have seen the country invest in a dizzying array of hardware, from new submarines to latest-generation cruise and ballistic missiles,China now spends more on defence than any nation except the United States.

The strengthening of China’s military capabilities, still in its early stages, has been paralleled by furious economic expansion.

Nearly three-and-a-half decades after reforms began, China had a US$7.5 trillion (Dh27.5 trillion) economy last year, the world’s second-largest, and there are predictions, including by The Economist, that it could overtake the United States by 2018.

The country is also the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, the largest manufacturer, the second-largest consumer of crude oil and an importer of vast amounts of other natural resources, such as minerals and timber, from Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Despite being a source of pride for many, the commissioning last month of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was treated in a deliberately low-key manner by state media.

The vessel was mainly focused, said the China Daily newspaper, on “training and testing”.

What the reports were trying to downplay was the perception that the carrier, a refitted former Soviet ship, was a glimpse into the future.

Its arrival appears to indicate an ambition to develop a blue-water navy capable of projecting force further from the county’s shores, one among many ways in which the power of the world’s most populous nation looks set to grow in the 21st century.

China’s export boom has allowed it to accumulate vast foreign exchange reserves and Beijing is the largest owner of US government debt, with holdings of $1.16 trillion.

Loans by Chinese banks to developing countries in 2009 and 2010 totalled $110 billion, more than the World Bank lent to these nations.

Amid the voices proclaiming China is likely to achieve superpower status within the next 20 to 30 years – the British journalist and academic Martin Jacques’ book When China Rules the World has sold more than 250,000 copies since its 2009 launch – some counsel caution.

Analysts such as John Ikenberry at Princetown University have argued China faces a formidable western-centric world order that is easy to join but difficult to overturn.

Indeed China’s willingness to sign up to international institutions and contribute to more than 20 UN peacekeeping missions could indicate it may be more of a status-quo power, although it continues to call for reforms of global organisations.

“The Chinese economy is the second-largest in the world, but in terms of overseas presence, a lot of what’s said about China being ubiquitous is in fact in error,” said Barry Sautman, a China analyst at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

“It’s still far behind some of the developed countries, for example, in investments abroad.”

China’s efforts to enhance its soft power, which reflects influence outside of the military and economic spheres, have yet to yield the hoped-for results, some believe.

While observers like Mr Jacques envisage a virtual collapse in western soft power amid China’s cultural, economic and political ascent, others note the apprehension and distrust China’s rise has sparked.

“China’s soft power has lagged behind its normal power, especially its economic power,” said Li Mingjiang, editor of Soft Power: China’s Emerging Strategy in International Politics.

The country’s image has faced many challenges. The plight of dissidents has been a focus in the West, African nations have expressed concern that China is exploiting their resources, and the country’s cheap exports have been blamed for thousands of job losses overseas.

In the United States, China has become an issue in the presidential election tussle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Neighbouring countries such as Japan and the Philippines have become concerned about China’s sabre-rattling over the East China Sea and South China Sea, and both nations have seen anti-China protests.

China, though, has invested in Confucius Institutes to teach Chinese, expanded the overseas operations of state-run media, launched foreign-language television channels and funded scholarships for foreign students, but its efforts “have not been very effective”, Mr Li said.

He said surveys have shown that China came to be regarded in more negative terms in many countries between 2008 and 2010.

“I don’t think China can displace the US as the most important country in the world in cultural soft power in the coming 10 or 20 years,” he said.

China’s growing regional assertiveness has pushed some of its neighbours, especially in South-east Asia, closer to the United States as they pursue a hedging strategy to limit Beijing’s power.

Their aim, said Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy, is to engage with China politically and economically while “building up [defence] capability” and ensuring the United States stays closely involved. Vietnam’s military budget, for example, has grown 83 per cent in the past decade.

Despite the growth and modernisation of China’s own military, the hurdles before Beijing can challenge Washington as the regional power in the Asia-Pacific are formidable.

“Even in a decade’s time, the hallmark of the US in the Pacific is its six [aircraft] carrier battle groups. China doesn’t have one,” said Mr Thayer.

A key part of China’s military focus is Taiwan, considered a renegade province, and Beijing’s military spending linked to the island has expanded faster than Taiwan’s defence budget. China now has as many as 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at the island.

Aside from defence, a key priority is maintaining the fast-paced economic growth of recent decades.

Yet the Asian Development Bank recently cut its forecast for the country’s growth this year to 7.7 per cent, a long way from the double-digit increases seen for much of the 2000s.

Much of the 4 trillion yuan (Dh2.34 trillion) stimulus package initiated in 2008 was spent on fixed assets such as infrastructure, and analysts fear this could result in non-performing loans that could spark a banking crisis.

Efforts to rebalance the economy towards domestic consumption and away from a reliance on exports have had limited success and calls for economic reform from the premier, Wen Jiabao, have not been followed by action thanks to opposition from vested interests within the vast state capitalism system.

While some population changes could work in China’s favour – the 10 million-plus moving to cities annually could prevent the bursting of a housing bubble – there are looming demographic imbalances, many linked to the one-child policy introduced in 1979. China has an acute gender imbalance, with almost 118 boys born for every 100 girls. While this ratio is lessening slightly, by 2020 there will be an estimated 24 million men unable to find wives. This could potentially jeopardise social stability.

The growing popularity of microblogs is leading to a freer exchange of ideas and could offer a focus for dissenting voices as well as becoming a growing medium for the expression of highly nationalistic views. The authorities have to walk a tightrope between fanning nationalism, so they are seen as the defenders of China’s interests globally, and the risk that they could be seen as insufficiently assertive on the regional stage, especially regarding maritime disputes.

Rising expectations among the middle class could also be a force for change, the authorities likely to come under growing pressure to deal with China’s acute environmental problems, with air pollution believed to cause as many as 400,000 deaths a year.

Despite some believing the country’s single-party political system, and the corruption that goes with it, is unsustainable, the country’s economic or political collapse remains a distant prospect to many observers.

“The Chinese leadership is very determined to prevent that happening. They have a formula for fairly steady increases in the economy to maintain their legitimacy,” said Mr Sautman.

Even with continued economic growth, China might not necessarily become a global superpower. Many leaders think “there’s no reason to alter a path that’s proved successful, to go into the world and knock heads together like the US does”, Mr Sautman said.

“Simply to try to project Chinese power, to their way of thinking, is very costly and fraught with a lot of potential dangers. It’s going to be a long time before China becomes a superpower, if indeed it does.”

 – Daniel Bardsley