Best Defense

Shambaugh: China won’t be a global power until it figures out what it wants

Shambaugh: China won’t be a global power until it figures out what it wants

By Alexander Sullivan

Best Defense department of psynology

Contrary to some of the more sensationalist appraisals of China’s rise in world rankings, David Shambaugh argues in his new book, China Goes Global: The Partial Power, that despite China’s undeniable achievements, it has succeeded in becoming a global actor but not a global power. Hence the word “partial.”

Shambaugh, a George Washington University political scientist, introduced his book last week in a February 13 talk at Johns Hopkins SAIS. He focused less on China’s “vertical” rise — its skyrocketing GDP and increasing military sophistication — than on the extent of its “horizontal” expansion of its influence to the rest of the planet. He analyzed China’s current global presence along five vectors: diplomacy, global governance, economics, culture, and security.

China has expanded its reach in most of these areas: It is the world’s second largest economy and possibly the largest trading nation; it has relations with over 170 countries; it sits at the main table in most global multilateral fora; its official media outlets are opening new bureaus abroad; and it just launched its first aircraft carrier to lead its navy ever farther out in the Western Pacific. But according to Shambaugh, all the government’s efforts along these lines have yielded precious little in the way of real power, as understood by people like Joe Nye — that is, influence exerted to make actor A do thing X.

On the face of it, Shambaugh’s conclusions are not unwarranted. China remains a “lonely power” with few genuine friends in the world. Increasing assertiveness in the East and South China Seas has helped roll back diplomatic gains made in its neighborhood since the Asian financial crisis, and even in African and Latin American countries where Chinese investment dollars (untrammeled by governance guarantees) had gained fast new friends, the picture is becoming less rosy.

One of Shambaugh’s most interesting arguments is that while China’s economic statistics are worthy of admiration, its “multinational” corporations have abysmal international brand recognition and an overall poor track record of breaking into overseas markets, calling into question whether China’s corporate sector is really as much of a global business player as it is assumed to be.

He acknowledged that China has tremendous latent potential as a true global power and that its capacities will likely increase. What provoked by far the most interest during the Q&A session was one of his explanations for why China has so far failed to convert its potential into power, namely that Chinese elites are divided over China’s identity in the world and the values it should represent. The lack of coherence among decision-makers in China, he said, has been one of the biggest impediments to their effective exercise of power. Absent consensus, the one thread that runs through it all (yi yi guan zhi) is poorly disguised, narrowly defined self-interest, which inevitably provokes counterbalancing by other international actors.