Whether China will become a global power

China Goes Global: The Partial Power, by David Shambaugh, OUP USA, RRP£20/$29.95, 320 pages

China is now the world’s second-largest economy and the only plausible challenger to the US as dominant global superpower. So it is hard to disagree when David Shambaugh asserts that the country’s rise is “the big story of our era”.

And yet, oddly enough, Professor Shambaugh’s China Goes Global is dedicated to proving that the rise of China is not such a big story, after all. With admirable clarity, he asserts early on: “The elements of China’s global power are actually surprisingly weak and very uneven. China is not as important, and it is certainly not as influential, as conventional wisdom holds.” Nor is this just a snapshot of today’s situation. “China has a very long way to go before it becomes – if it ever becomes – a true global power. And it will never ‘rule the world’.”

Such an analysis is likely to be music to the ears of many in Shambaugh’s home town, Washington DC, where he is director of the China programme at George Washington University. The professor is no propagandist, however: he has spent a lifetime studying China and is a former editor of The China Quarterly.

In making his assertion that China is “a partial power”, Shambaugh leans heavily on an analysis of the nature of power made by Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard – in particular Nye’s belief that the essence of power lies in the conversion of resources into influence.

It is here that Shambaugh believes Beijing falls down. Most of his book is given over to a sector-by-sector analysis of China’s global impact. When it comes to diplomacy, he argues that China is a reactive, lonely power with no real allies. In security terms, unlike the US, China has no network of global bases and alliances – and is not even the dominant power in its own region. Shambaugh is particularly dismissive of China’s global cultural presence, arguing that the country has “very little influence on global cultural trends, minimal soft power and a mixed-to-poor international image”.

The argument of China Goes Global is made forcefully, systematically and with plenty of evidence. It marshals information and research in a way that is valuable – and often fascinating. For example, I found the analysis of the different schools of Chinese thought on foreign policy crystal-clear.

Ultimately, however, I was unconvinced by the thesis of China Goes Global – for two main reasons. First, the argument that China is only a “partial power” is least persuasive when it comes to the most important area: economics. And second, the book risks presenting a static picture of a very dynamic situation. As China’s economic weight in the world continues to grow, so its power in other areas – military, cultural and diplomatic – will also grow.

Shambaugh seems to be in two minds about exactly where China stands economically. He starts his chapter on the topic with an impressive list of statistics. Over the past two decades, China alone has accounted for about 40 per cent of global growth. It is now the world’s largest energy consumer, the world’s largest exporter and holder of the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves. Yet, in line with the theme of his book, Shambaugh asserts that China, nonetheless, “remains a partial economic power”.

The evidence for this seems a bit thin. China, he points out, has an under-developed financial sector – but this might not be such a bad thing, in the light of recent western experience. It also “does not even rank among the world’s top 10 donor nations” when it comes to foreign aid – which seems a relatively minor problem.

Moreover, China has few leading multinational corporations and is “only the world’s fifth-largest overseas investor”. And yet, as the book goes on to illustrate, China is likely to increase its foreign investments massively in the coming years – and has now begun to develop companies with genuine global reach and global brands in areas such as telecommunications and home appliances.

It is clearly true that economic strength does not automatically translate into a similar amount of political, military, diplomatic and cultural power. So it is likely that China will become the world’s largest economy – Shambaugh suggests, a little conservatively, that this is likely to happen in 2025 – without becoming the world’s pre-eminent political power.

And yet you do not need to be a vulgar Marxist to believe that economic power is, ultimately, the basis for most other forms of power. There is not much “soft power” to be derived from poverty. As for the hard stuff, contrast the spectacle of China’s double-digit increases in military spending with the way in which the sequestration of the US budget is likely to erode the Pentagon’s military muscle.

Whether or not you buy Shambaugh’s thesis, however, his book sets out one side of the argument with clarity and lucidity. As such, it is a valuable contribution to a critical debate.

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator and author of ‘Zero-Sum World’ (Atlantic)

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