China Goes Global: The Partial Superpower

David Shambaugh
Published by Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0199860149
A Review by Alistair Burnett

This is a book those who take a close interest in China have been waiting for: an assessment of the global impact of Beijing’s increasing power and influence by a leading expert on the country.

Many of the books on the international ramifications of China’s rise have been written by generalists who have a less profound understanding of the Chinese political and economic system and the country’s long history. But David Shambaugh is a respected Sinologist, who has turned his attention from analyses of the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army to China’s increasing involvement in the global economy and geopolitics.  

On the one hand, the book is a treasure trove of information on Beijing’s now multifaceted involvement in global affairs and impact on the world, as well as the debate in Chinese academic and thinktank circles about what China should do with its newfound influence. 

On the other hand, while the title is perceptive, China is nowhere near being a global power, and the book is an effective riposte to works like When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques or Arvind Subramanian’s Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance; when it comes to the analysis, Shambaugh tends to slip into viewing Beijing’s policies and actions through an American lens which risks ascribing wrong motives to Chinese policies.

In what will come as a surprise to those who still regard the People’s Republic as an authoritarian, monolithic state, the book kicks off with a perceptive analysis of the lively debate inside China over what the country’s role in the world should be.

Shambaugh identifies six distinct schools of which, he argues, the “Realist” school is predominant. They are nationalists who put state sovereignty above all else and take a pragmatic view of relations with other countries. Then there are the “Nativists” whom Shambaugh describes as “a collection of populists, nationalists and Marxists” who distrust the outside world. Another group, the “Major Powers” school,  want Beijing to focus on relations with the US, the EU and Russia, although Shambaugh sees their influence on the wane since President Jiang Zemin stepped down in 2003. The “Asia First” school argues that China should focus on ensuring stability in its backyard by reaching out to neighbours. These academics were influential in the decade after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, but less so in recent years as China became more assertive, especially over territorial disputes with Japan and in the South China Sea. The “Global South” school argues China should identify with and work with developing countries with strong support for the Millennium Development Goals as well as a no-strings attached approach to foreign aid and debt relief. The “Selective Multilateralists” advocate gradual expansion of China’s global involvement; they realize China must contribute to global governance, but are wary of overburdening the country while still in the process of economic development. Finally, there is the “Globalist” school, which argues the country should take on more responsibilities and work with other countries to deal with global challenges, especially within the UN system. 

The chapters on China’s diplomatic presence; the impact of its economy and large companies on the rest of the world; the government’s efforts to project soft power; growing military capabilities; and increasing role in global governance, especially in the UN and other multilateral organisations, are a veritable gold mine for those who want a concise, up-to-date account of China’s presence in global affairs.

For instance, Shambaugh’s knowledge of China and mastery of Chinese sources produces an insightful discussion of how Chinese conceive of soft power and the rival ideas in the country as to what should constitute it beyond the broad concept of culture. He quotes one of the leading theorists of soft power, Men Honghua, who reaches back to pre-communist history to identify key Chinese values that he believes have universal appeal: peace and harmony, morality, etiquette and benevolence. The problem, according to Men, is that Chinese themselves lost touch with those values during the Cultural Revolution.  

The chapter on China’s security presence presents a comprehensive account of China’s military modernization, including its cyber and space capabilities. It also reveals that China has sent 20,000 personnel on peacekeeping operations over the past two decades and is the largest contributor to peacekeeping among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, a significant contribution to global governance.

Shambaugh carried out many interviews with Chinese politicians and academics for the book, and he tells us they insisted to him that theirs is still a developing country with many internal challenges, given the level of GDP per capita in China ($8,228) compared to the US ($52,839). Yet, Shambaugh seems reluctant to accept this at face value. He implies Beijing should be doing more to help solve global problems and is using its identity as a developing nation almost as an excuse to avoid contributing more toward global governance and public goods. He writes, China is nation that “finds it easy to say no but still difficult to say yes.”

And while he goes on to explain the deep-rooted historical and cultural reasons why China takes this attitude to global governance, Shambaugh still frames his analysis from the American standpoint that being a responsible member of the international community should be assessed in relation to what the US and western powers do in the global institutions they created in the aftermath of World War II.  

Shambaugh cites former US Trade Secretary and World Bank President Robert Zoellick’s oft-quoted question asking whether China will be a “responsible stakeholder.” But, in an insightful section, he goes on to identify that what Zoellick meant was that China had successfully integrated into international institutions and now should move on to integrate into international norms – norms, of course, established by the West. This is not simply a call for Beijing to step up, take a more active role in the UN system, and share more of the burden in sorting out global problems, be that the Syrian crisis or climate change; the implication is that China should adopt the ideological underpinning of the liberal international order. But as Shambaugh also points out, China won’t do that because its approach to its global role is conditioned by its own domestic political and cultural ideology and practices.  

Furthermore, China’s current attitude to global responsibilities is not so unusual. It took half a century from when the US emerged as a major global economy in the late 19th century and the cataclysm of the Second World War before Washington moved on from its desire to be left alone to concentrate on economic development, and took on the global diplomatic and military commitments it maintains today.  

A crucial question about the emergence of China on the global stage is whether it will disrupt the international order to such an extent that it causes conflict with another major power, most likely  the US or Japan.

Shambaugh argues Beijing needs to reassure the world its growing military power is not a threat, although he acknowledges that China’s growing dependence on imported commodities, especially oil, means developing the ability to project military power to protect its lines of supply is understandable.

No doubt insatiable thirst for energy for a growing economy is a major driver of China’s growing global involvement, as well as its development of a blue water navy. This year, China has overtaken the US as the world’s biggest importer of oil, and Beijing’s leadership appears increasingly preoccupied with the need to secure access to energy supplies in the future.

Many commentators like to go back to Thucydides and his history of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens to argue conflict between an established power, like the US, and a rising power, like China, is inevitable. But others argue it isn’t, and that how this plays out is also up to Washington and its response to Beijing. In the Financial Times, analyst Seth Kleinman of Citi, argued the priority for the US should be to reassure China it can buy all the oil it needs: “that makes the world a more secure place because China is much more linked up with the world’s security agenda and with market economics … it cannot be a free rider or a lone wolf: it is obliged to participate more. And that’s a good thing.”

This book makes a persuasive case that China wants to concentrate on economic development at home, but is now deeply integrated into the global economy – and should reinforce confidence that Beijing’s emergence on the global stage may be bumpy, but remain largely peaceful.  

For an excerpt from China Goes Global: The Partial Superpower click here.
A sweeping account of China's growing prominence on the international stage.
Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale