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World superpowers and China

China does not have the grandeur of the Romans, the military machine of the Mongols, the ideology of the erstwhile USSR, the Navy of the British or the unassailable expanse and contribution to mankind of the US.




We have seen many civilisations: Greek, Persian, Chinese, Indus Valley, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Roman, Islamic, Mayan, Inca and more. Similarly, many great empires have risen and fallen—the Ottoman, Persian, Spanish, Hapsburgs, Arab, Mauryan, Mughal, the Tang dynasty. However, the world has seen only five superpowers. Mongol and Roman empires in ancient times. The British empire, the USSR and the US in modern times. What is a superpower? The term is contextually used with different meanings. Holistically, superpowers possess military, technological and economic might, vastly superior to others. They have global capacities to steer, influence and shape events. Their power projection could be simultaneous in multiple locations. The power could be economic, military, technological or “soft” (diplomatic, political and cultural). A superpower should be able to dominate other countries and ward off challenges. It cannot be ignored on the world stage. Without its cooperation no world problem can be solved.

The Emerging Competition: The US is striving to retain superpower status. China is striving to surpass the US. The Pandemic has parachuted into this competition to throw a spanner in the works. In this context it is necessary to evaluate if China can realize its ambitions? What are the threats and opportunities? These questions will trouble us; particularly in India.  An overview of superpowers – past and present indicates where China is heading. 

 Past Superpowers

The Roman Empire. It was the first superpower. It was founded in 27 BC and lasted five centuries (probably the longest superpower). Illustrious emperors/ dictators like Caesar, Augustus, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius’ and decadent ones like Nero, Caligula and Tiberius ruled it. It held sway over the Middle East and Europe, ruling most major population centres and contemporary civilizations including Greece, Egypt, the Levant, Carthage, Anatolia and Italy. Its footprint covered over 60 million people. Roman legions, famed for military dominance, laid  the foundations of the Empire.  Persia, the only real competitor of the time, was repeatedly ravaged. The Roman Empire was distinguished for many intellectual accomplishments – Law, City Planning, Architecture and Roads. Roads promoted commerce, agriculture, mail delivery, pedestrian traffic, and military movements. City planning was all about hygiene with plumbing, sewage disposal, dams, and aqueducts. Roman architecture is still famed for its lavishness and planning. The period is also significant for the birth of two major religions – Christianity and Islam. One within the Roman Empire and other on its periphery.  Rome ultimately fell due to internal factors like civil war and economic depredations.

The Mongol Empire. It was the world’s largest land empire. Just a million Mongols conquered vastly larger populations and empires. It was not a unitary empire as normally envisaged but a vast agglomeration of widely different territories held together by military domination. Military prowess propelled it to superpower status. Its all-conquering military machine was based on outstanding tactics, mobility, utilization of the technology of the conquered peoples and logistics. As each state along the Silk Road was conquered, the empire expanded.  The Silk Road was the economic backbone of the Mongols.  From 1206 till about 1294, Genghis Khan and his heirs ruled an empire that included most of Eurasia, much of the Middle East, parts of Eastern Europe, China and Russia. At its peak it stretched from the Danube to the Sea of Japan  and from the Arctic to Camboja, covering over 22% of the Earth’s land area. It held sway over 100 million people. It is often referred to as the” Mongol World Empire”.

The British Empire.  The first modern day superpower where economic, military and soft power were equal constituents. It was founded on colonies and trading posts established in the 16th/17th centuries. The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates, and other territories ruled or administered by UK. Its political, linguistic and cultural legacy still e n d u r e s t h r o u g h t h e Commonwealth.  It was the largest empire and foremost global power for over a century. In 1922, it controlled 1/4th the world’s population over 1/4th of Earth’s landmass. In the  empire there was sunlight throughout at some place or the other. That is why the “sun never set” in the British Empire. It had the largest military of all times. Its military power was based on a powerful Navy with which it could strike and control strategic chokepoints—Suez, Malacca, Aden, Hormuz, Gibraltar. It enabled unfettered trade and made UK enormously wealthy. In 1870, it had the largest percentage of world GDP (35.9%).  In 1938, it still had the second largest GDP after the USA. It was insulated and unassailable by continental powers with the Atlantic on one side and the English Channel on the other. WW1 heralded the collapse of the British Empire. It was completed by WW2.  

 The Soviet Union. USSR was the briefest superpower. It was founded on the erstwhile Russian Empire. It rose to be a superpower at the end of the WW2. It disintegrated due to the Cold War with USA. The intervening four decades witnessed global bipolarity whose poles were capitalism and communism. USSR was huge and difficult to knock out as Napoleon and Hitler discovered. The expansive resource-rich landmass fulfilled Mackinder’s Heartland Theory – whoever controlled the Eurasian heartland could control Eurasia and thus the world. It rivalled the US militarily, technologically, economically and in soft power. Communism, its defining ideology,  propelled it to superpower status and ultimately caused its demise. Communist ideology propagated by USSR was global and included China also. Russia, its successor state inherited USSR’s global influence.  Russia is still a power but falls short of being a superpower since it could not reinvent itself as the US has repeatedly done.  

 Present Superpower

USA is the current superpower. It has a huge population,  an enormous continental-sized resourcerich territory located on two oceans.    It has been unassailable barring two brief times — Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and 9/11 strikes on Twin Towers. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it has enjoyed conventional military dominance in air, sea or land. Its Navy can control all the world’s major sea routes and choke points. It operates 516 military installations in 41 countries around the world, including 42 that are large or medium-size bases. It has extensive alliances including the NATO, Anzus Pact, bilateral military agreements with Japan and South Korea, and the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance between the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Economically it is very strong and is home to a significant proportion of the world’s GDP. Its currency is the reserve currency of the world. It has the trust of most rich and affluent nations. That makes its economic power non-finite and non-territorial. The US has leveraged technology in every walk of life as a currency of power. Its forays into space, nuclear and information spaces are pioneering. Technology turned it from an energy-neutral to an energy surplus nation. It wields enormous soft power which it projects it through its culture, educational system, political affiliations, aid programs, overseas bases, Hollywood and its huge network of MNCs. Most importantly it has been able to reinvent itself after every setback to emerge stronger: Be it economic setbacks like depression of the 1930s or the global meltdown of 2008 or military setbacks like the Pearl Harbour or Twin Tower attacks. It has been able to ward off competition from the USSR and emerge bigger. It is currently in a debilitated state economically due to the corona virus and is under severe threat from China. Will it stage a recovery as it has always done?  One thing for sure even if does stage a recovery, its economic dominance would have eroded. The other thing for sure is that its military, diplomacy and technology power are still intact. These could leverage its economy back to dominance. Do not count it out.


China’s ambition is to be the undisputed No. 1 superpower. The Chinese were expected to overtake the US as the world No. 1 power by 2050. However, coronavirus has put in sharp focus a number of issues. Let us take see them.

  China has an unfavourable Military Geography—continental size, poor resources, assailable from all directions (The Great Wall is testimony) with constricted ocean access. Its military must defend the nation, prop the Party up, parry competitors and control international choke points and gates. China needs an outsized military with international presence. The past few months revealed two things. One. Chinese military power has serious limitations. It does not have superpower capabilities. Two. Core military power still counts to become a superpower. Power flows from the barrel of a gun. Did Mao not say that? India has stopped it in its tracks in Ladakh and the US has bottled it in South China Sea. All its military gambits have strategically failed. Its reach lies exposed. Outposts are vulnerable. Internal issues like Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan are termites. Its military needs greater teeth to be a superpower. Bridging the chasm demands huge investment.  

 China is betting on its economy to attain superpower status. Despite a high GDP, per-capita GDP is low. Population is aging. The state must guarantee prosperity to people in return for sacrificed freedoms. All superpower populations had affluent lifestyles (barring the USSR which collapsed). China needs huge revenues internally. BRI is its gambit to control international trade, expand the economic footprint, develop dependencies and achieve world domination. It is a mega combination of the US’ foreign aid programs, the Mongol Empire’s Silk Route and the British Empire model of establishing trading posts prior to colonisation. However, the Virus has paralysed the BRI and exposed its noxious underbelly—usurious loans, debt traps, one sided projects et al. Overall being a superpower is an expensive business with huge external expenditure. The economy will have to generate lot of cash.  In the current environment of relocation of manufacturing, unacceptability of Chinese financial systems, longevity of the Virus and the overall geopolitical developments, there are severe headwinds ahead.  

To adjudicate on international matters China needs to generate trust. However, it is emerging as the root cause in many disputes. Its reputation on IPR theft and technology transfer is horrendous. China displays selfishness with no concept of ‘Global Commons’. It has blatantly repudiated international treaties, law and a rules based order (South China Sea and in Hong Kong) and not lived up to promises. More than alienation it has generated hate in many countries.

Overall, when one sees it in the backdrop of history, China does not have the grandeur of Romans, the military machine of the Mongols, the ideology of the erstwhile USSR, the Navy of the British or the unassailable expanse and contribution to mankind of the US. They might be aiming to better everyone. They might achieve many things but seem unable to scale their symbol of pride: The Great Wall of China. It has fostered psychological isolation- Mao’s self-imposed international isolation, the current regime’s Great Internet and Information Firewall, diplomatically created geopolitical isolation and the Han exclusion of other Chinese ethnicities. A psychologically isolated superpower without allies or friends (historically) is difficult to imagine.

China must have phenomenal economic growth to become a superpower. It appears to be recovering well despite the pandemic. However it is early days. The huge variables are the Virus, Unprecedented floods in its core industrial belt, drought and food shortages, job losses due to industry closures, global determination in decoupling/relocation and geopolitical isolation—all reported by Chinese media. The chances of economic dominance do not look bright.

Net Outcomes

It would be fair to say that the days of a unipolar world are over. We are entering a world of multi-polarity. The US will be a large pole which will strive to recover its economic mojo while everything else intact. China might be a large economic pole striving for everything else. There will be budding poles like EU, India, Japan and ASEAN. All one can say—the Global Pivot is to the East and the competition is on!

Lt Gen P.R. Shankar was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Dept of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. His other articles can be read on his blog www.

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Two Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists killed in the J&K encounter



Ansar Ghazwatul Hind (AGH), an Al-Qaeda-linked terror outfit in Kashmir, has suffered a major setback. In an encounter on the outskirts of Srinagar, security forces killed two more AGH terrorists.

The AGH terrorists were apprehended after the army and police received specific information about their presence.

During the exchange of fire, forces killed two local Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists from AGH. Both terrorists are Pulwama residents who have been involved in a number of terrorist attacks.

According to police, the terrorists were also involved in an attack on a migrant worker in Pulwama.

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N. Korea enacts law on preventive nuclear strikes, France calls “threat to peace”




France criticised North Korea’s adoption of a law announcing its preparedness to launch preventive nuclear strikes on Friday, calling it a “threat to international and regional peace and security.”

The announcement from the foreign ministry came after North Korean state media earlier on Friday reported that Pyongyang had enacted a law authorising preventative strikes, including in the event of conventional attacks.

“This new escalation on the part of the North Korean authorities represents a threat to international and regional peace and security,” said a ministry spokeswoman.

France “notes with great concern the increasingly aggressive declarations from North Korea,” she added.

The decision by Pyongyang practically puts an end to the possibility of denuclearization talks after leader Kim Jong Un said that the nation’s nuclear status is now “irreversible.”

The announcement comes at a time when the North and South are experiencing greater conflict.

In addition to conducting a record number of weapons tests this year, Pyongyang has blamed the COVID-19 outbreak in its territory on Seoul.

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China has successfully tested its first solar-powered drone capable of acting as a satellite



A Chinese government official informed in a tweet that China has successfully tested its first fully solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), named Qimingxing-50, which can fly for months and can function even as a satellite if required.

What is the significance of this test flight?

The Qimingxing-50, with a wingspan of 50 m, is a high-altitude long-endurance drone that is capable of high-altitude aerial reconnaissance, assessing forest fire and can also be used for communications.

This technology will bolster Chinese defences in space and at sea. It can be used in the fields of renewable energy, new materials, and aeronautical engineering. The Chinese official also asserted that this test flight is an important step towards sustainable development.

Use of the UAV as a satellite:

The UAV, whose name translates as “Morning Star-50” in English, is claimed to be capable of functioning uninterrupted for months. This capability of having a long-endurance flight gives it a use case of operating as a satellite.

Like satellites, it is fully electric-driven, powered by solar energy and can operate at 20 km above the Earth’s surface for an extended period of time continuously. It is also referred to as a “High Altitude Platform Station” or a “pseudo-satellite.”

It can be used when there is unavailability or disruption in satellite services. The report says that compared to the cost and complexity of installing a satellite in orbit, this UAV is much more cost-effective and easy to operate.

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Strict security measures have been taken at the Central Vista ahead of the inauguration by PM Modi



As Prime Minister Nrendra Modi is going to inaugurate the newly revamped Central Vista on Thursday, over 1,500 police personnel have been deployed for security over there.

A senior official of Delhi Police who is aware of the security arrangements said that the area has been divided into eight zones, which will be manned all day by eight deputy commissioners of police (DCPs) and additional deputy commissioners of police (ADCPs).

The officer, on condition of anonymity, said, “Besides 17 assistant commissioners of police (ACPs), 43 inspectors and nearly 1,200 upper and lower-rank staff of Delhi Police will be patrolling in the areas. While ten Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) companies will patrol the area during the day, two additional CAPF companies have been deployed for security arrangements during the evening shift.As many as five patrolling teams in 10 mobile patrolling vans (MPVs) will be keeping a constant watch on all the public movement in the area.” 

Another officer said that, “The Multi Zone Door Frame Metal Detectors (DFMD) have been installed at 90 points in 25 locations in the area. Apart from one anti-drone gun, one counter-unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) has also been installed in the area, to detect, track, and ultimately disrupt and destroy any suspicious aerial intrusion. While five teams of spotters will keep a strict vigil in the area, another five traffic decongestion teams have been deployed there to immediately remove any traffic bottlenecks in the area. As many as five SWAT teams have been deployed in the area to avert any emergency crisis.”

The official added that drones will not be permitted near Central Vista on Thursday.

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Pakistani rangers opened fire on BSF patrolling party in J&K



As per the reports, Pakistani rangers opened fire on a Border Security Force (BSF) patrolling party in Jammu and Kashmir’s Arnia sector on Tuesday morning, prompting the BSF to respond appropriately to the “unprovoked firing”.

“Today morning the alert BSF Jammu troops gave a befitting reply to the unprovoked firing by Pak rangers on BSF patrolling party in Arnia Sector. No loss (of lives) or injury (reported) to the BSF troops,” a statement issued by a BSF spokesperson said.

On February 24, 2021, India and Pakistan agreed to strictly adhere to all agreements and understandings concerning cross-border firing along the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB) in Jammu and Kashmir, among other sectors.

Other incidents of firing by Pakistani troops have occurred in the last year and a half, but Tuesday’s incident was “a major one” and occurred on a day when Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was in India for talks, an officer anonymously said.

According to a second officer, the Indian Army and BSF respond immediately and effectively to unprovoked firings and ceasefire violations by Pakistan along the LoC and IB.

Before the agreement in 2021, there were 5,133 ceasefire violations in 2020, 3,479 in 2019, and 2,140 in 2018. However, this number dropped to around 700 last year. Statistics for 2022 are not yet available.

The Indian government has maintained that it is Pakistan’s responsibility to create a conducive environment by taking credible, verifiable, and irreversible action to ensure that no territory under its control is used for cross-border terrorism against India in any way.

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India sends the body of Lashkar terror operative via LoC in Poonch



Pakistan accepted the body of Tabarak Hussain, Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist operative via Chakan Da Bagh on the Line of Control in Poonch district on Monday.

“Officials of the Indian Army and civil administration took the body of slain terrorist in an ambulance to Chakan Da Bagh where it was handed over to Pakistani army officials,” said a senior official.

Tabarak Hussain, son of Mistri Malik of Sabzkote in PoK, was apprehended in an injured state by the army on August 21 in the Jhanger area of the Nowshera sector in Rajouri.

Tabarak was apprehended while allegedly infiltrating with a fidayeen terror group to attack Indian army posts along the LoC.

However, Indian army troops noticed the movement and opened fire on the intruding terror group, injuring Tabarak while other infiltrators fled to PoK.

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