Is China a Declining Superpower?

The demographic crisis in China marked by other chronic problems could end up thwarting the dragon’s superpower ambitions

By Pranay Kumar Shome

Foreign Affairs
Illustration by: Budha Chandra Singh

Fate seems to be playing a cruel role for the Middle Kingdom nation. At a time when China was harboring ambitions of dislodging the United States and becoming the new magnus frater in the global order, all its hopes seems to have been dashed by the demographic crisis which has upended Chinese plans to become the sole superpower in current international politics. The light of the Chinese sun seems to be dimming day after day. No matter how much propagandizing the Chinese communist party and its mouthpiece Global Times does, it is clear that the Chinese nation is a diminishing superpower which is facing almost an existential crisis.

Ageing population

Yuval Noah Harari in his book ‘Sapiens- A Brief History of Humankind’ had highlighted how the spectacular progress in medical sciences around the world particularly in China could trigger a demographic crisis thanks to arm twisting policies of the Communist party to stabilize the population. Decades of the repressive one child policy accentuated the crisis to such an extent that the party was forced to rescind its decision and relax family planning norms to 2 child norm. While it did little to alleviate the demographic crisis China is now scrambling to bolster its population. It is in this context that it has allowed Chinese parents to take up to three children. The reasons are quite clear- an ageing population will not only become an economic burden but also the productivity of the labor force will decline rapidly.

On the consumption side, China will face a decline in its consumerist habits due to an ageing population. Above all, an ageing population will simply fail to provide able bodied men for conscription in the armed forces which could endanger national security.

Failing projects

If the demographic crisis wasn’t enough China is facing a new headache of its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) faltering slowly. Launched in 2013, the BRI was envisaged as the medium which would catapult China as the new superpower displacing America in the global order. Alas, the debt trap diplomacy of China has made several Chinese allies skeptical of the legitimacy of the projects. Lack of accountability and transparency surrounding the projects on one hand and on the other hand China’s high handedness in disregarding regional and local calls for the preservation of local ecology and stability of environment has made the BRI highly unpopular. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only exacerbated the problems surrounding BRI projects but has also prompted SOS calls from various nations particularly Sri Lanka, Philippines, Maldives to give some debt relief as they are suffering enormous economic downfall. The BRI could undermine Chinese efforts in resurrecting the vision of the Middle Kingdom in the coming years.


While the Chinese propaganda machinery may dismiss the Quad security grouping as a disparate grouping with no uniform aims it is clear that this ‘Asian NATO’ has rattled China. This evident from the fact that China has been of late displaying bellicose behavior towards the Quad countries which is unusual. Further the carving of a separate supply chain alliance by India-Japan-Australia trio to global dependence on China has surely got the Xi Jingping and his lieutenants very much worrying. Recent attempts by Quad countries to expand their alliance by giving it a shape of an alliance of democratic countries which have a common adversary in Beijing has sent alarm bells ringing in Beijing.

Perhaps joint military exercises with Quad+ countries could have a more significant impact on China to exercise caution in dealing with its neighbors and respect their territorial sovereignty and integrity.

Pandemic woes

But perhaps the most damaging of factors which has severely dented China’s benign ‘superpower’ image is its shady and clandestine role behind the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic which has wrecked havoc around the planet. The whole world is demanding an answer from China. The US has asked its intelligence agencies to submit a report within 90 days about the origin of the pandemic. This has been backed by not just India but a host of other countries which have suffering the debilitating impact of the pandemic which has taken a severe toll both in terms of lives, economic downturn as well as on mental health.

Conspiracy theories particularly the ‘biological warfare’ one has rapidly circulated around the world which has tarnished the image of the Middle Kingdom as a reliable ally and a country which could lead the ‘Asian century’.

Making a comeback

It is however not too late, China can make a comeback but only if it makes genuine attempts to regain the trust it has lost in the eyes of the world community-

Firstly, China must come out clean as to whether there was a leak of the deadly virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) or did it spread from animals to humans. China must allow an independent probe comprising of relevant ‘non-partisan’ experts around the world who could certify whether the virus was leaked deliberately or whether it was a case of pure accident. China must not try and deflect attention on this issue.

Secondly, China must respect the sovereignty and integrity of its neighbours, in this age of multilateralism where nations are interdependent on each other for survival China must not engage in a game of brinksmanship. History is replete with incidents where a nation-states engage in aggressive behavior to become powerful ultimately end up tottering to their own fall.

Finally, China must truly follow the Confucian path in its foreign policy, instead of following Machiavellian politics, China must try and learn that only with a good behavior marked by cooperation and amity can nation states expect to prosper. China must try and become a good country first. It must give up its great power ambitions and must tread the path of peace and development instead of antagonizing other countries.


China is a great nation which has the ability to teach countries the meaning of how to be a good nation; it must make immediate attempts to regain goodwill among countries to salvage whatever it can at this time of suffering and solidarity among the Homo Sapien species.

– The writer is currently working as a Trainee Research Associate at Defence Research and Studies ( and is a columnist. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda