What is power?


At the core of ChinaPower are prevailing questions regarding the nature of power. Scholars and policymakers widely agree that power, in its different forms, plays the critical role in determining political outcomes. Countries need power to pursue their goals and protect their interests. It’s a notion so commonplace that it’s rarely questioned.

However, notions of power run the gamut. While some experts focus on traditional measures of power, such as military or economic strength, others emphasize the importance of less measurable characteristics, such as cultural influence. Power is a critical feature of international politics, yet it remains a nebulous term.

ChinaPower derives its understanding of power from the considerations raised by the following questions:

  • Do states seek power as a means to an end or as an end in itself?
  • Are states concerned about absolute levels of power or relative levels of power?
  • Is power fungible across issue areas or are different types of power unique to certain issue sets?
  • Can power be measured or is it simply a perception in the eye of the beholder?

How ChinaPower engages these questions is specific to our mission of providing a broad audience with interactive tools designed to inform discussions of Chinese power. There are certainly other ways in which power can be considered. We do not seek to propose a one-size-fits-all definition of power, but rather offer a description of how the concept of power relates to the issues explored by ChinaPower.

Countries do not exist in an isolated bubble. They are continually interacting (or choosing not to interact) with other countries, multilateral institutions, and nonstate actors both directly and indirectly. This ongoing interaction necessitates that power be considered as more than an aggregate of the resources—such as material wealth and industrial capability—which contribute to a country’s power. Power is not simply what resources a country has at its disposal. Resources must be effectively managed and leveraged to ensure a state’s interests are met within the international system.

Power sets the parameters on each action or set of actions between political entities. In this sense, power and policy are intertwined. The options available to policymakers are constrained by relative power distributions. Great powers are afforded more policy options than smaller powers. As an emerging regional leader and a nascent global power, examining Chinese power is critical for understanding the changing nature of global politics.

Then what is power? In simplest terms, power is the ability of political actors to shape outcomes within the international system. Since countries are interconnected through either geographic proximity, transnational trade, international institutions, or other means, producing a desired outcome requires the ability to condition the behavior of others.

This crafting of behavior is context dependent. A country may possess tremendous economic power but limited military power. Similarly, a regional leader may find their military prowess greatly reduced in areas outside their geographic neighborhood. Power also varies in how it is exercised. Outcomes can sometimes be molded by influence alone. In other cases, force is needed.

Understanding the intersection of Chinese influence and capabilities can be accomplished by examining five broad categories of power. The first two categories, military power and economic clout, are frequently discussed in international relations. Three less discussed factors—the level of technological advancement, social stability, and international image—are also critical when discussing power. These five interrelated vectors expand the standard distinction between hard and soft power, enabling ChinaPower to develop questions that are rooted in at least one, but often times more, of these categories. Given the fluidity of power, our questions also explore the linkages between these varying forms of power.

Like any country, China needs power to pursue its national interests. We intend to provide a baseline for exploring how the Chinese government is utilizing China’s influence and capabilities to cultivate Chinese power. ChinaPower provides the tools, analysis, and expert perspectives necessary to answer the question: “What is power in China’s context?”

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