Prevailing wisdom goes like this--China will overtake the U.S. economy in the next few decades, ushering in a new era of Chinese international political dominance. Various reports agree--15 out of 22 countries in a Pew Research study and a plurality of U.S. Americans believe China has overtaken the U.S. or will soon. And the U.S. National Intelligence Council forecasts China usurping U.S. authority by 2030.
U.S. hegemonic decline has been debated for decades, and the newest foil to its authority is China. The U.S. currently exists as the world's one and only superpower. But it is folly to believe that the U.S. will be deposed by China anytime soon, even with its double-digit growth and increasing regional influence.
Reports foretelling the end of U.S. hegemony rely on raw data, when it is international relationships that truly undergird world superpowers. No economic, military, and public opinion formula will decide the world's next global hegemon. These components matter--but not without international legitimacy, as derived from, and defined by, a global coalition of the willing.
It is here that the U.S. reigns supreme. The U.S. has won over, however begrudgingly, the international community as a whole. And until this allegiance to the U.S. breaks down, she will remain the absolute world superpower. The U.S. wields a power of influence, persuasion, and leadership on the international stage that no other state comes close to. She sets international law, ignores international law, and is accountable to no one. China, while clearly jockeying for authority and power, does not yet have legitimacy.
Take France's invasion of Mali last year. It was the U.S. who provided the necessary support, in effect running the operation to combat Islamic militants. A scenario where France, a country with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, calls first on China for tactical support is tough to imagine. China has seen its regional influence increase substantially in recent years, but a situation where China and not the U.S. leads a successful international coalition of allies is fantasy.
In fact, the opposite is true. China is far from being considered a trustworthy ally to the international community, sitting on the periphery of many international decision-making processes, for a number of reasons. China commits deeply troubling human rights violations at home. China has yet to disavow the brutal oppression of President Bashar al-Assad, and, along with Russia, has held up UN resolutions condemning the regime. China is also North Korea's last ally, a thoroughly unfortunate distinction.
China's relationship to human rights is anything but progressive. Censorship of the press and the Internet, restrictions on freedoms of religion, expression, association, prohibition of many independent labor unions and organizations, and the repressive policies against many people in Western China and Tibet spell trouble for the leaders in Beijing on the international stage. Even though the U.S. is no human rights saint, she currently holds legitimacy with a team of allies who prize consistency and stability, making a global shift in power highly unlikely.
If China continues on this path of questionable governance and cavorting with questionable allies, no serious block of internationally influential states will support a Chinese hegemony over the current U.S. one. And so, China will remain a strong regional and international player, but one that plays second fiddle to the U.S.
Still, the dogged sentiment of declining U.S. authority remains. China predicts its economy will overtake that of the U.S. by 2019. But the likes of the U.K., France, Germany, Japan, etc. will not simply turn around and support China the moment its GDP crosses some arbitrary threshold. Rich, industrialized nations are not about to live in an international system dictated by Chinese rule.
The U.S. and China will engage in plenty of power struggles in the coming decades--but it is unlikely that China will challenge U.S. authority and garner support from the world's industrialized nations. The U.S., regardless of its failings, rightfully holds firmly its influence over world values, and will do so indefinitely, regardless of its economic and military strength in relation to China.
Amidst economic crises and an embarrassing era of political dysfunction (See: government shutdown), the U.S. remains the world's only superpower. An upheaval of the international power dynamic, in this century, requires more than economic or military might. It requires democratic values, respectable allies, and an appreciation of human rights. And until China can pass these tests, the U.S. is in no danger of losing its allies or influence.