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Book Review: China Goes Global: The Partial Power – David Shambaugh

Ford, G. (2014). In paperback: China Goes Global: The Partial Power by David Shambaugh, Asian Review of Books, 24 December.

This American-authored book attempts an encyclopaedic evaluation of where China stands in the world today, ranging from missile sales through tourism and overseas direct investment on to its shying from geopolitical responsibility. All systematically covered by long chapters on diplomacy and governance, economics, culture and security.

China Goes Global does a excellent job in providing a counterbalance to the American—and European—school of academics and policy makers stranded on the wilder shores of a twenty-first century variant of the “yellow peril”. China Goes Global instead puts China in perspective. China is neither as important nor as influential—nor as threatening—as those that paint it as an emerging superpower colossus rivalling the United States contend. Nor will it be any time soon.

Shambaugh makes telling points. China is in, but not really part of, the community of nations, with a presence but not an influence. It’s a lonely power, unlike Washington, with neither allies nor empire. Beijing’s priorities are domestic and they drive the foreign policy agenda to an extent not seen in the US. The consequence is a failure to exert leadership and a refusal to take geopolitical responsibility with the result that China has minimal influence and contributes little to shaping outcomes for global issues. China’s “soft power” does not come out of the barrel of a camera like Hollywood, nor as yet does it come in music, fashion or literature. K-pop is here, but we’re still waiting for C-pop.

Nevertheless, the world has profoundly changed China since 1978 and now China is beginning to change the world.

Shambaugh’s central criticism is China is not like the United States and shows little signs of wanting that to change in the near future, whether at home or abroad. China does not want to take up the burden of world policeman to suit Washington’s budget nor engage in a deal on climate change that favours US consumers over Chinese producers.

Shambaugh talks about the Chinese economic model as if it were somehow unique. Yet in essence, the blend of authoritarian—or at least one-party—politics and a de facto mixed state/market economy has been the Asian development model for Japan, South Korea and the “tiger economies”. Here Beijing is not leading rather than following.

What detracts from China Goes Global to some extent—and maybe it was unavoidable in view of the immense amount of ground to be covered—is that many of the statistics are dated from four or five years ago or more. More crucially, on the thorny issue of Market Economy Status (MES), there is a misunderstanding that MES protects one from the imposition of anti-dumping duties, and a mistake that it will automatically be granted to China by the EU in December 2016. The Lisbon Treaty (2010) means that this awaits the approval of the European Parliament whose collective view of China is jaundiced at best.

There is inevitably some repetition. Worse, in the retelling, the story does not always remain the same: for example, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez quintuples daily deliveries of oil to China (page 117) while later merely doubles them (page 163). Elsewhere there are errors. His contention that there are no Chinese soccer players in Europe’s premier leagues yet ignores Sun Jihai’s six-year spell with Manchester City (2002-08) and 120-plus Premier League appearances.

China Goes Global: The Partial Power wears its conclusion in its subtitle. It is certainly an antidote to the received wisdom. Nevertheless, China may currently be an incomplete, a diffident, power, it’s not guaranteed to stay that way. The last two generations have seen China from periphery to centre stage.

One doesn’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows: 160,000 Chinese in US universities and barely 20,000 American in Chinese universities, with the majority of the former majoring in business, maths and sciences and the latter learning the language; 300 million Chinese are learning American and 200,000 Americans learning Chinese.

Shambaugh writes at one point in his conclusion that China can be seen as a “middle power”, a regional power, like Australia. Much as Canberra may applaud his perspicacity, others will take the view that at this point at least he hasn’t watched the film through to the end.