Internationally, much has been said of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, there are two strands of thought that dominate the discussion of this nascent global superpower. The first and arguably most prevalent public view is the China rising paradigm.
Here, scholars, practitioners in international relations and security policy, the media (social and mainstream), military and business leaders refer to the fact that since Beijing’s 1978 opening to the world, the PRC has become the world’s newest superpower. It has grown exponentially in terms of its economic might today. Some argue that it holds much of the continent of Africa under its economic sway, a good portion of Latin America, and of course, is irresistibly tied to Asia, including Australia and New Zealand. This narrative often comes with a sting in the tail for the United States, which is seen by the ‘inevitability of China’s rise’ group as a weak, corrupt, declining superpower, defeated by its lack of moral virtues and strength of purpose.
The less prevalent view, held by some policy insiders and some public intellectual outliers, is China as a “paper tiger” theory.
This narrative contends that as a totalitarian state, the PRC hides its failings far more successfully than its Western counterparts, mainly because it controls the flow of information, restricts public debate or even internal Chinese Communist Party (CCP) debate on state policy matters. That the PRC benefits from anti-Western views from Western skeptics, often left-leaning scholars  with good access to social and mainstream media channels that can influence government officials, conflate the nature of the threat of the Chinese state. This effectively gives the CCP a policy of “free-kick.” If enough Westerners believe in the inevitability of China’s superpower status, then it becomes the truth. However, those who believe that the PRC is more bark than bite point out that its military technology is still far from equal to that of the West. They point out that China continues to rob Western commercial and defense companies of their IP, the stolen defense IP being re-engineered and integrated into modern Chinese weaponry.
If the PRC was a superpower of equal standing to the United States, why the need to steal Western technology? Domestic Chinese defense innovation and production would be the pride of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Furthermore, proponents of PRC as a ‘paper tiger’ contend that while much has been made in the international media of the PRC’s massive efforts to build a blue-water navy and an accompanying 5th generation air force, Chinese military force has been used sparsely. This demonstrates a fear of engaging with Western forces even in waters protected by the PRC’s massive A2AD shield. 
So, the question this paper poses is what the PRC is? The international existential threat to the global order, or an emerging great power with superpower pretensions.
One Belt, One Road, No Option
Arguably the most significant evidence for China’s superpower status is its ability to wield economic suzerainty over economically weaker, though resource-rich actors. We have seen how Chinese enterprises, many of them State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), have set up trading relationships, usually but not exclusively in the infrastructure game, to facilitate improved foreign extractive industries and distribution points. While sold to countries desperate for foreign investment, with no strings attached upfront, Chinese foreign investment often sees the recipient country fall into debt traps. They then effectively give away substantial national wealth or infrastructure for the exclusive long-term use of Chinese commercial/state interests. Moreover, because of the deliberate ambiguity of what constitutes the Chinese ‘commercial realm’ from its SOEs, there is no way of fully ascertaining whether the Chinese private sector is any less obliged to the CCP than SOEs that are rewards doled out to loyal party members.
Some observers suggest that China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) plan (also known as the Belt and Road Initiative, BRI) creates a road and rail network linking critical resources to the PRC. Those who see this as Chinese 21st Century imperialism believe that the political implications for doing so have prevented a more honest appraisal of this ambitious scheme. The Chinese themselves might well be selling the OBOR program as a purely commercial venture. However, politics follows close behind. Take Pakistan, for example. The country committed to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2013. This USD 62 billion project aims to link China’s southwestern border to Pakistan’s port of Gwadar. This would allow Gwadar to act as a vital port of distribution for Chinese goods going into the Middle East and East Africa and for Middle Eastern and East African raw materials going to China.
On the eastern side of India, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) promises an equally important route whereby Chinese products go into Myanmar, with Burmese raw materials going to the PRC. The newly Chinese-built Burmese deep-water port of Kyaukphyu allows Chinese traders access into the Bay of Bengal, challenging India’s strategic and commercial dominance while linking Kyaukphyu port with Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port through ‘debt-trap diplomacy.’ The recent military coup in Myanmar, which ended the National League for Democracy (NLD) government of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, took place with the tacit agreement of the CCP. The conclusion is reached considering the likelihood of Burmese military reform and investigation of corrupt practices between Chinese interests and the Burmese military on the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) project could have ended this special relationship while destroying the Burmese military’s economic privileges.
Then, in arguably the most significant Chinese diplomatic and strategic coup in recent times, in March 2021, Beijing signed a US$ 400 billion defense and commercial deal with internationally isolated Iran.  This injection of Chinese money and military technology is significant because it will give the desperate ruling regime a lifeline to shore up its control over the country. With Chinese investment entering Iran on an unprecedented scale, the Iranian leaders can ignore international economic sanctions, promise locals employment on massive projects, and refresh its armed forces, especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) with modern Chinese military technology. What debt traps lie in wait for the Iranians is not currently known. However, if the recent history of the ever-expanding OBOR is any guide, the Iranians will be caught just as every other recipient of Chinese assistance has been.
After many years of developing its trillion-dollar OBOR network, the project seems to be running into trouble. The trouble is about politics and strategy.
The CCP has been busy turning OBOR into a form of an indirect global empire. Its only real diplomatic language is meant to be about money, with most of the benefits flowing to Beijing at local levels. The not-too-subtle approach of Chinese businesses, whether ‘private’ or SOE, has affected them. For instance, in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan, locals are beginning to resist Chinese dominance in the local economy. This is mainly about the treatment of ethnic Kazaks in western China. Because the CCP invested so heavily in Kazakhstan as part of its New Silk Road initiative, authorities in the Kazak capital of Nur-Sultan are using its dependence on Chinese foreign direct investment against the CCP. Knowing that there is no cost-effective alternative to Kazak infrastructure or mining rights, Kazak authorities are putting pressure on Chinese businesses and in-country investments by allowing public anti-Chinese displays in Kazak cities to demonstrate the people’s anger at the CCP’s persecution of western Chinese ethnic Kazaks. 
Implicit in this is that Chinese businesses, trade, and commerce on Kazak territory will be subject to costly disruption unless Beijing changes its stance on Chinese ethnic Kazaks. This is a popular policy among Kazak nationalists who believe that the government has conceded too much of Kazakhstan’s sovereignty to gain Chinese economic assistance. Whether Kazakhstan can maintain this position for the long term is unknown. The CCP could help fund a coup or a political destabilization campaign to bring to power a pro-China clique. However, any Kazak pro-China clique would likely run into the problem of having to repress the country’s popular desire to see an improvement in the lives and livelihoods of ethnic kin in western China. Once the nationalist genie is out of the bottle, it is difficult to put it back in. This suggests that while power generally flows from the top down, the reverse can also be true in Kazakhstan and China.
Further afield, recipient states’ OBOR money and projects are being questioned with governments asking Chinese officials uncomfortable questions on the so-called ‘win-win’ aspect of Chinese investments. Then there are practical difficulties in implementing and maintaining a global project across multiple jurisdictions, business, and political cultures. Not all political leaderships place money before national identity or sovereignty. And since much of what China offers the world through OBOR is money with political strings attached, such as never question the integrity of Chinese capitalism, the motivations of the CCP, the motivations of Chinese businesses or criticize the Chinese state, continuing OBOR into the future may not be as clear-cut as Beijing, and particularly OBOR’s greatest champion CCP Chairman Xi Jinping believes.
The impact of Covid-19 on the OBOR project is hard to determine too. Many countries, including China, do not have transparent political systems, and so the pandemic’s effects on the global workforce involved in building the OBOR network is far from certain. However, it is logical to assume it has profoundly affected Chinese workers and workers within countries contributing their infrastructure to OBOR.
Because of the Sino-American trade war, which started in July 2018, and the deep distrust engendered between Chinese and Western businesses, largely as a consequence of the CCP using its economy as a weapon of strategic coercion, the Biden administration has maintained Washington’s rage against Beijing, post-Trump, so much so that it is endeavoring to create a rival trade and investment network to OBOR. The idea is that in the international marketplace for investment, technology, trade, and commerce if there is only a monopoly present, no one can choose an alternative. However, should Biden’s idea take off, Western countries, pooling their resources, could compete with the CCP’s OBOR. Furthermore, if the developing world is given an alternative to China’s debt-trap diplomacy, OBOR itself might be capped and eventually reduced in global economic importance.
The reality of Chinese military strength
Much has been made of China’s massive shipbuilding project. It threatens to upset the balance of power in East Asia and the Western Pacific, and should the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) be able to sail into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) unhindered, the IOR as well.
However, in this narrative of Chinese naval power lies a stark element of Chinese strategic power. The PLAN cannot sail into and sustain operations in the waters around Guam (a major American military base) or the waters of Hawaii. Neither can the PLAN encircle and threaten the Japanese home islands, home to several globally significant American military and naval bases, push through the Strait of Malacca and into the Indian Ocean to threaten Indian naval dominance or harass the Anglo-American base of Diego Garcia. If we push this even further, the PLAN cannot send submarines into Sydney Harbor or sail up and down the Californian coast. These capacities would signal to the world that China had a first-order navy commensurate to a global superpower. The PLAN is, despite its growing size, a “green water navy.”
This means that the PLAN can fight in home waters and open oceans near its coastline. It is designed to fight defensively in areas it hopes to dominate completely, such as the East and South China Seas. These bodies of water are close to the Chinese mainland and can be covered by the PLA’s rocket forces should a shooting war ever start between the US and the PRC. The PLAN’s amphibious warfare capabilities are extremely underdeveloped. Therefore, it is unlikely that the PRC could conduct a successful conventional invasion of Taiwan in the near term. However, it could certainly attempt to take smaller islands in the East and South China Seas, including smaller Taiwanese islands off the mainland coast. 
Many of the ships being built in Chinese dockyards are smaller-sized vessels – the equivalent of Western frigates. Moreover, to drive this point home, the PLAN has recently scrapped plans to build six aircraft carriers due to design and production problems and cost overruns – ironically, similar problems to those encountered in the new USN Gerald Ford class. Consequently, the PLAN will have four non-nuclear aircraft carriers in the near to medium term, smaller than their American equivalents. Because Chinese warships are, on average smaller, they are lighter and less complicated to build and are best suited for maneuvering around and between the smaller islands and islets of the East and South China Seas.
The massive shipbuilding efforts by the CCP are indicative of a long-term strategy of displacement. The idea is that over time the tonnage of PLAN vessels patrolling the East and South China Seas will be so overwhelming that US-led Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) will become too hazardous. Another likely scenario is for a complete naval blockade of Taiwan, rendering any Western intervention so perilous that breaking the blockade would be an act of war. As many senior officers in the Chinese military believe the West would not challenge a serious Chinese threat to Taiwan, a blockade could achieve the capitulation of Taipei and the bloodless capture of the ‘renegade island-province.’ Again, this might be a way of capturing Taiwan while avoiding an amphibious attack. However, an actual superpower would be confident in its order of battle, the quality of its weaponry, leadership, and workforce to take the island-state in whatever way necessary and in whatever timeframe.
The PLA’s senior command may want to reach specific long-held objectives, but preferably without fighting Western forces since there is no guarantee that Western forces would lose once committed to a fight. Furthermore, the loss of face that the CCP would sustain from being defeated by an ‘inferior rival’ could split the 90-million strong CCP into warring factions. It certainly would have a seriously negative effect on the premiership of Xi Jinping. Either way, the PRC would be changed in fundamental ways by a significant military loss. After all, the entire PRC military structure is the world’s largest praetorian guard. Its primary mission is not the invasion and occupation of countries it is the preservation of the CCP.
As for overseas military bases, another metric of the PRC’s superpower status, only one base has been built in the tiny African state of Djibouti. A country in which it shares military space with the Americans, Europeans, and Arabs. Currently, China has no exclusively Chinese extra-territorial bases to permanently forward deploy elements of the PLA too. Much has been made of the potential for Gwadar (Pakistan), Kyaukphyu Port (Myanmar), and Hanbantota (Sri Lanka) to act as PLAN bases for its so-called ‘String of Pearls’ policy.  While this might be the case in the medium-to-long term, a so-called string of pearls for the PLAN could only be used to Beijing were PLAN warships to sail through the Strait of Malacca in force freely. However, as we have seen, much of the PLAN is still a green water fleet, limited in its international reach to the East and South China Seas.
Fighting without shooting
This leads to the next major issue for the PRC – fighting without shooting. The PRC has invested heavily in weaponizing trade and commerce. It is challenging to fight money. The poor and underdeveloped are poor and underdeveloped; governments of such countries are desperate for capital and generally see foreign investment as a way to survive politically. Promising jobs keep people from protesting or plotting coups, insurrections, or revolutions. The other major strategic investment for the PRC is cyber warfare.
Through utilizing the vulnerable global internet commons, both the dark and the light nets offer the PRC the ability to glean electronic intelligence, corrupt government and corporate systems, gather information on ‘people of interest,’ and of course, spread and disseminate propaganda. Because of the subtle nature of cyber-attacks and that most of them are non-attributable to any person, organization, or state, this provides an almost perfect cover to conduct any activity against a targeted country and get away with it. The June 2020 cyber-attack on Australia was a textbook example of how the PRC prefers to punish wayward trading partners, especially cyber-dependent Western ones.
Having been grossly offended by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s suggestion that an independent international inspections regime be launched into the origins of Covid-19 – Australia was “targeted by a sophisticated state-based cyber actor.”  While not directly accusing the PRC leadership of anything, the Australian government made it clear that the attack could only have come from a regional country with the means and motivations to attack Australia. This indirect message could only mean one country, the People’s Republic of China. The attack itself was the largest of its type to date, affecting all levels of the Australian government, critical infrastructure, businesses, and essential services. 
Because of the diplomatic language used, no accusations were made against the Chinese, and therefore, no public attribution for the attack could be made against Beijing. Doing so might have encouraged the Chinese to escalate its cyber-attack on Australia. While we do not know whether Australia has in any way retaliated for this breach of the country’s cyber-security, it is reasonable to assume that some retaliatory measures had since been taken. Being a totalitarian state, the Chinese likes to portray an exaggerated sense of its capabilities while hiding defeats it receives at the hands of Western adversaries. And Western countries fighting cyber campaigns prefer to keep their actions from public view to sustain public and commercial confidence in its cyber domain, which is good for business and reduces public anxiety.
Intelligence operations designed to corrupt or compromise Western politicians and public intellectuals are another preferred way for the Chinese agencies to influence policy within Western countries regarding China. As with cyber-attacks, intelligence operations are often concealed from public view and, when revealed, received very little airtime in the mainstream or social media environments. They are hard to prove and easy to dismiss unless governments are interested in revealing the full nature of these operations – a rare event indeed during a time of ongoing international tension.
The PRC runs some of the most sophisticated human intelligence-gathering networks in the world today, second only to its electronic intelligence gathering.  Through this, it has sown disinformation in the West about its motivations on the following subjects – Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, the treatment of Muslim Uyghurs, Kazaks in East Turkestan (western China), and other minorities in the Chinese mainland. It has also been able to use its intelligence-gathering network to steal the IP of sensitive defense-related designs, which have now been incorporated into the PLA’s order of battle.  However, as Chinese-built copies of Western weaponry have not been tested in high-intensity combat, much of its more sophisticated equipment, except for some minor elements, will be of the quality necessary to sustain long periods of high-intensity combat.
Large numbers of 5th generation J-20 stealth aircraft, for instance, can only fight well, not because they are stealthy, but because the planes are supported by resilient maintenance, logistics and ground crews, reliable missiles, and EW suites. They are flown by competent and well-trained pilots ably led by innovative and adaptable command staff. Therefore, in the Chinese case, numbers, while undoubtedly intimidating to outsiders, can also prove illusory as a metric of strategic strength. The same goes for any other branch of the Chinese military. Considering that the PLAN often uses Chinese fishing vessels to push forward against contested waters and islands in the South China Sea suggests that PLAN commanders are not confident that PLAN ships and their crews could confront foreign warships head-to-head, especially American ones.
Avoidance of direct conflict can signal ‘cleverness’ in outfoxing Western and partnered regional navies by a deliberately confusing civilians with military vessels and objectives. As the West has strict rules of engagement, taking naval action against “threatening” civilian vessels, even if suspected under the control of the PLAN, could be seen as unduly aggressive – not just by the PRC leadership but by members of the Western media. Therefore, sinking one or two Chinese fishing vessels could have a strategic political effect on how US and Western naval power is exercised.
Fighting without shooting, however, is still the option of a weaker state. It is an asymmetric strategy that uses guile and bluff to overcome the genuine power of a stronger rival. It can be instrumental during times of prolonged tension. In contemporary times, the Iranians, North Koreans, the Russians, and the Chinese often used it to improve their international positions. Taking China’s economic power aside for the moment and looking strictly at its military power, guile and bluff are affordable ways to outfox America, its allies, and partners in the Indo-Pacific. They are low-risk, high-impact affairs that, if handled well, can net strategic advantage without having to engage in open warfare. However, as a measure of global power, asymmetric power cannot be measured against more established military forces with global reach. That is why China, no matter how many ships, tanks, and planes they build, still fails to correspond with its international peer competitors because they are not being used in the same way as those forces.
Between 2019-2020, Australian think tank SAGE International wrote a report funded by the Australian Department of Defense, looking at the power dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. On China and the nature of Chinese power, the report observed that:
In the end, contemporary Chinese strategic power under CCP rule in the Indo-Pacific is no “done deal.” From a quality and quantity perspective, China may appear to be a global strategic power, but its reach is limited by the following:
Furthermore, the report argued that:
The PRC’s non-kinetic reach is more persuasive than its military capabilities.
All this points to the limits of modern China’s strategic power in the Indo-Pacific. Its expansion can only be arrested by resolute and coherent political action from the West. As the CCP has perhaps pushed its competition with the West too far under the stewardship of Chairman Xi Jinping, expected Western pushback, from a revitalized and engaged Japan operating as part of the Quad or any other mini-lateral security arrangement will test the resolve of the CCP in a way that it has yet to be challenged. How Beijing responds will show whether the young lion is circling the old lion of the United States in a classic Thucydides Trap or simply a pretender to superpower status.
 Whether personally under the thrall of contemporary China, or in the pay of Chinese influencers working through the global network of Confucian Institutes or in more indirect fashion akin to Soviet spying efforts during the Cold War.
 The PRC’s military forces have not been tested in state-on-state war since the PRC’s failed invasion of Vietnam in 1979. Its naval clash with Vietnam in 1988 over Johnson Reef, helped save face for China against its much smaller neighbour, but Vietnam’s defeat in this relatively insignificant naval battle said more about Vietnam’s naval deficiencies than China’s strengths.
 F. Fassihi & S.L. Myers, China With $400 Billion Iran Deal, Could Deepen Influence In Mideast, The New York Times, March 27, 2021
 P. Le Corre, Kazaks Wary of Chinese Embrace as BRI Gathers Steam, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 28, 2019.
 “The ‘String of Pearls’ is a strategy deployed by China, by building a network of commercial and military bases and ports in many countries. This strategy has been deployed by China to protect its trade interests, as a major chunk of its trade passes through the Indian Ocean and various choke points like Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Malacca and Lombok Strait” Byju’s.com
 B. Scott, Morrison’s messages to the “sophisticated state-based cyber-actor”, The Interpreter, The Lowy Institute, June 19, 2020
 J. Bruni, Cyber Intrusion, Janes Intelligence Review, September 2020, pp.50.53.
 H.V. Pant & A. Mann, China has an intelligence gathering architecture unlike any other, The Print, September 15, 2020
 See: B. Gertz, Deceiving the Sky: Inside Communist China’s Drive for Global Supremacy, Encounter Books, 2019
 J. Bruni, D.J. Olney, P.C. Jain, J.Z. Ludwig & P.J. Tyrrell, The strategic implications of changing regional dynamics & regional partnerships on major power competition in the Indo-Pacific, a report funded by the Strategic Policy Grants Program (SPGP), Ovato, Melbourne, Victoria ,2020
 J Bruni, ‘Cyber Intrusion,’ Jane’s Intelligence Review, September 2020, pp.50-53.
 P Coorey & L Tingle, ‘“Let Us Know Next Time”: How Obama Chided Turnbull Over Darwin Port Sale,’ Australian Financial Review, November 19, 2015, https://www.afr.com/politics/let-us-know-next-time-how-obama-chided-turnbull-over-darwin-port-sale-20151118-gl1qkg.
 TRT World, ‘How China’s Debt Trap Diplomacy Works and What It Means’, TRT World, December 13, 2019, https://www.trtworld.com/africa/how-china-s-debt-trap-diplomacy-works-and-what-it-means-32133.