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The Empire of the 21st Century | A Story of China’s Money, Military, and Dominance

The Empire of the 21st Century | A Story of China’s Money, Military, and Dominance

China’s rise to power, in regard to its economic capabilities, military might, and political dominance, has rapidly increased over the last few decades. While there is certainly contention amongst many as to whether this nation has or will surpass the significance of other major superpowers (US & Russia) around the world, one thing remains certain – China is growing, and it doesn’t look like anything will be stopping this…

China’s Neo-Colonialist Practices:

China’s swift development onto the global stage can, in part, be attributed to its neo-colonialist practices. But what is this, you might ask? Well, it’s the ‘subtle use of economic, political pressures to control resources and influence other countries’, rather than the use of military occupation or governmental overthrow that would have occurred during centuries bygone.

So, how has China used its economic global dominance to control the resources and political decisions making processes of other nations?  

Firstly, through their ability manufacture products and materials at an unprecedented rate, which has enabled them to control, to a considerable degree, a variety of markets on a global scale.

Today, China is a manufacturing powerhouse accounting for 28.7% of the global manufacturing in 2019, 10% more than its closest rival – The United States. However, this isn’t anything new, as China has almost had a continuous rate of growth, averaging around 10% each year, since 1978. Now, with COVID-19 in a state of decline within this nation, its economy has not only managed to quickly recover but become the only major economy to receive any form of growth last year. Consequently, China has now been predicted to overtake the US in global output as soon as 2028.  


The reason for China’s recent economic success can be pinpointed to its rapid suppression of Covid and surge in exports.

China has recently dominated the global Fortune 500, in which 125 out of the 500  wealthiest companies (three of which were in the top five) were run by Chinese owners, beating the US by 4. Furthermore, its capacity to trade has been expansive, in which China exports to 117 countries each year, with 47 of these (according to the 2016 World Trade Organization’ Trade Profile Database) receive most of their imports from this nation.

This not only highlights China’s economic heft but forms the basis of how this country has the ability to directly influence the economic and political decisions of governments from around the world. Ultimately, as soon as you become reliant on another nation for the majority of your resources or infrastructure then you are opening yourself up to a potential political threat.

One of the principal areas of investment made by China is in Africa. In 2013, China overtook the US as the largest foreign direct investor (FDI) for the continent, in which, since 2010, state owned Chinese companies have contributed to one-third of Africa’s power grid and energy infrastructure.

China has embarked on multiple projects: the Trans-Maghreb highway from Western Sahara to Libya that will connect the North African countries; a $300 billion port expansion in Namibia, and Angola’s $4.5 billion Chinese funded hydroelectric power plant.

Daan Roggeveen has acutely pointed out the immense dominance of these Chinese projects:

Right now, you could say that any big project in African cities that is higher than three floors or roads that are longer than three kilometers are most likely being built and engineered by the Chinese. It is ubiquitous.


By 2018, the China Development Bank had funded 500 projects in 43 different African countries worth $50 billion. In 2019, China would go on to cancel $78 million of the $5.8 billion debt owed by Cameron for infrastructural development, which they would be used to their advantage in gaining Cameroon’s support in the United Nations. This tactic would further employed during the following year when China cancelled $2.1 billion of debts from poorer countries; the most by any G20 country.

The poorest countries’ official bilateral debt to G20 countries reached $178 billion in 2019, with 63% of the total owed to China

Reuters

Recent developments closer to home have been promoted by the Belt and Road Initiative which looks to increase connectivity between China and her neighbours with projects in Indonesia, Pakistan, Myanmar and more. President Xi Jingping, at the first Belt and Road Initiative forum (2017), would state that:  

In pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, we should focus on the fundamental issue of development, release the growth potential of various countries and achieve economic integration and interconnected development and deliver benefits to all.

This would highlight that despite this degree of ‘generosity’, China clearly has a multitude of ulterior motives when it comes to providing loans and developing the infrastructure of other – specifically those of ‘economic integration’ and ‘interconnected development’.

China has often used its economic power to improve Party-to-Party relations, in which it has  provided political training programs in an effort to exhibit their wealth and deepen international relationships. The impact of this can be seen through Rwandan President Kagame’s statement on Chinese investment in 2018.

They say China has lent too much to Africa, but another perspective of the issue is that those criticizing China on debt give too little, and Africa needs the funding to build capacity for development.

This diplomatic effort has led to a new major player in global politics, in which their influence can be seen global throughout the United Nations. There are 15 United Nation agencies, all elected by member voting, and China heads four of them… They remain unmatched by any other country.

China's Diplomatic Relations
China has slowly increased the number of countries it has diplomatic relations with from 10 in 1950 to 180 in 2020.

China’s Military Might:

The most important and obvious growth of Chinese power is their military. China has multiple territorial ambitions and claims which this 21st century empire is looking to pursue.

The most impactful of these is the South China Sea. China’s claims in these territories are well known with it being famously called the ‘Nine-dash-line’ which crosses multiple maritime sea borders of their neighbours and a plethora of valuable trade routes.

In 1947, Yang Huairen worked on this map which introduced the dash line and 286 bits of rock and turf in the South China Sea. Yang helped to officially name each chunk of rock and reef, referring to the territory collectively as the ‘South China Sea Islands’. When the nationalist government lost to the Communists, both continued the claim of Yang’s works and consequently both Taiwan and China have claimed these waters.

China's South China Sea Claims

Despite other nations rejecting these claims China has militarily reinforced its claims through various methods. Firstly, China, like many of the Asian Pacific nations, has occupied some of the territories in the Spratly Island chain. It is uncertain how many of these islands are now under China’s control due to the high level of militarization that is within these areas, however, what is known is that China has been complimenting her occupied islands by creating new artificial ones.

Starting in 2013 China has dredged over 7 reefs to establish major military bases with ports, airstrips, and missiles. These are positioned in controversial areas often in international waters and used by China to stake claim of the territory. These artificial islets are more than 1,000 kilometres away from China and are often closer to other nations

To counter this growth in the South China sea the US has regularly sailed passed the artificial islands to highlight their lack of influence in the area. Trump would increase the level of this activity during his time as President and Biden has seemingly followed a similar hard-line strategy.

Biden has recently sent another destroyer to challenge the Chinese efforts in the South China sea with the US Navy destroyer USS Russell sailing through the Spratly Islands on the 17th of February 2021, challenging China’s unlawful demands that foreign military vessels ask for permission before sailing through the area.

China's Terminator
China’s Terminator by Gregory Segal

Along with these newly established territories, China has increased its military spending and production to fulfil its global role; in just eight years China built 83 ships for its navy.

In 2021, the continued naval growth “is a sign of the pretty impressive advances that the PLAN [People’s Liberation Army NAVY]” has had in the past few years,” said Timothy Heath, a senior international defence researcher at the RAND Corporation, believing that:

The Chinese are launching ships at an impressive rate, and not only is it an impressive rate of production, but the capabilities of the ships are impressive too.

Along with her naval expansion China has also increased her army and air force capabilities. China currently has the largest long-range surface-to-air systems including Russian S-400s and 300s while also modernising her forces, which, according to the 2020 US China Military Power Report, has…

…completely restructured the PLA into a force better suited for joint operations, improving the PLA’s overall combat readiness, encouraging the PLA to embrace new operational concepts, and expanding the PRC’s overseas military footprint

All this growth is part of XI Jinping’s Chinese Dream which is committed to creating a “world-class force” that can dominate the Asia/Pacific and win global wars by 2049. The Chinese army is currently the largest in the world with 915,000 active-duty personnel in 13 army groups, While their Airforce is the largest in the Asian region and the third largest world with 800 of the 1,500 fighter jets are considered on par with Western fighters. Moreover, China has recently developed the H-6N bomber which is its first nuclear-capable bomber.

Along with this rapid growth of military China has increased her global presence through overseas military bases. Their first overseas facility was created in November 2017 in Djibouti, near one of the busiest maritime routes in the world on a 10 year-lease. The most recent expansion at the Djibouti site is the new pier as reported by General Stephen Townsend (Head of US Africa Command):

Their first overseas military base, their only one, is in Africa, and they have just expanded that by adding a significant pier that can even support their aircraft carriers in the future.

Despite only having a single military base, China is expanding her efforts and is planning to build more within Africa and across the world. The state has been working tirelessly to get a base in Tanzania (West African coast), who they have had “a strong, longstanding military relationship”, in which they have recently revived the $10bn Indian Ocean Dar es Salaam port project with.

Furthermore, The Gulf of Guinea on the East African coast is also a potential position with recent Chinese diplomatic interest. One of the more certain bases to be built is in Angola where it already has naval, air and ground forces.

In Asia China has looked to create a string of pearls– a group of Chinese facilitates which can be used by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. One of the more likely ports to be used is Pakistan’s Gwadar but this is yet to occur.

Meanwhile in late 2020 China announced plans to build a new $200 million fishing complex in Papua New Guinea in an area without commercial fishing activities with it allegedly “just big enough for naval vessels” said Sky News host Cory Bernardi. Two of the more likely Asian countries to house Chinese troops are Myanmar and Cambodia due to their closer relationships. Cambodia has been accused by the US of having secret Chinese bases due to satellite pictures (shown below) showing an airport in the remote Koh Kong province similar to those in the Spratly Islands.

China's Military Bases.
Satelite Photo of Potential Chinese Military Bases in Cambodia

In other areas in Asia, Chinese troops have been noticed in greater concentrations. In Afghanistan and Tajikistan it seems there may be potential military bases. The new Chinese base in Tajikistan is near the Wakhan Corridor.

In a 2019 sudden interview with a Chinese soldier named Ma in the nearby Tajik town he said, “We’ve been here three, four year”, highlighting this is not a new development. The reasoning behind this interview was discovered by journalist Anahita Dodikhudo of the Iran International who believes it is in place to “forestall the prospect of ethnic Uyghur militants trickling across from Afghanistan into Western China”.


The overall growth of China is inevitable due to its strong economy, technological advancements, and its vast population, which has allowed for the rapid expansion of Chinese power economically, politically, and militarily. This growth does not seem to be slowing down any time soon and could even increase exponentially as China improves relations with states and increases her military capabilities. It is no longer a question of if China can be a global power or when… But for how long.

About The Author

Lloyd Watts

I am from Portsmouth in Hampshire and I am currently studying International Relations at the University of Warwick. My main areas of interest in writing are in politics, history and sport. In terms of other hobbies I enjoy playing sports, mainly rugby and I love to game and read.

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