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China goes global

China goes global

Jonathan Sullivan12 Mar 2014Leave a comment

Written by Niv Horesh

David Shambaugh of George Washington University is one of the world’s best known experts on Sino-American relations, the ideological strands of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) anti-Americanism, and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) modernization. His latest book provides a stock-taking of Chinese global power, both hard and soft. In eight comprehensive and meticulously-researched chapters, Shambaugh sets out to debunk the growing, but by no means fully-received popular wisdom, that China is rapidly becoming a superpower on a par with the US.

In that sense, Shambaugh is one of very many, if not the majority of, Western academics who flatly reject Martin Jacques’ arguments. The Jacques thesis advanced in When China Rules the World (Penguin 2009) primarily points to the mesmerizing scale of China’s trade with the rest of the world and to the enticement of what he sees as China’s ancient war-averse culture. Consistent with Paul Kennedy’s influential The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (Random House, 1987), Jacques is convinced of the inevitability that Chinese economic growth will sooner or later translate into a global leadership role and thus contestation of US hegemony.

In contrast to Jacques, Shambaugh suggests that Chinese economic clout, while already quite overwhelming, has so far failed to translate into an attractive or coherent narrative of global leadership. In other words, while it is impossible to ignore China’s imprint on our lives nowadays, it is equally hard to conceive how China could change the international system for the better. Furthermore, China still lacks true allies except perhaps for North Korea or Pakistan.

For all its growing economic might, China has so far latched on to the US-led international system, while often denouncing the US as a hypocritical hegemon. Can such churlish yet mainly “responsible” foreign policy win over new audiences on the world stage? There is reason for skepticism. Furthermore, will this basic policy orientation remain in effect if rivalries with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines continue to escalate? Time will tell.

For now, China still clings to the rhetoric of a developing-world underdog, while evading concrete details on the alternative world order it may be offering. At best, Beijing can propagate a melange of Confucian pleasantries oddly laced with more familiar socialist strains. Where the two jar, “Chinese characteristics” fill the visionary gap. Hampered by inferior long-rage military capabilities, and by serious domestic challenges, China’s vision for the future is thus, according to Shambaugh, not credible and quite narrowly self-serving.

Shambaugh stresses the CCP’s looming legitimacy crisis, growing social inequality and dissent at home. He also argues that China’s growing dependence on Middle-Eastern oil makes it particularly vulnerable, whereas the US is moving in the direction of energy independence. Somewhat more controversial are his claims regarding the shaky foundations of China’s banking system and the lack of innovation in Chinese academe and high tech sectors. To put it this way, Shambaugh’s account of Chinese capacity in these areas will not boost readers’ confidence in China as a site where new forms of renewable energy might be developed, or where revolutionary super computers will lift up office productivity.

It is here that Shambaugh’s arguments will be put to test in the next few years, as the floodgates of Chinese outward foreign investments are thrown wide open. Barring another global financial crisis, we will witness bolder attempts by Chinese companies to establish a toehold in higher-end developed-world consumer markets. So far, the ‘China Model’ of export and cheap-labour-led growth has not begot a Toyota or Samsung, but that could change in the decade to come.

At the same time, Chinese military outlay is growing by leaps and bounds even if it will take the PLA at least 3 more decades to catch up with the US technologically. This is not tabloid scaremongering or necessarily all bad, for as Shambaugh masterfully recounts, Chinese troop contributions to UN peace-keeping missions around the world are substantial.

Finally, China’s current “charm offensive” in South Korea, to which conservative President Park Geun-hye has reportedly warmed, could potentially test US alliances in the nearer future, as does Japan’s tilt to the right under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Popular perceptions of China in South Korea have, for example, been fluid of late, and the prospect of North Korean implosion could further sway public opinion. Shambaugh’s account of China as a “partial power” is impressively detailed, but the speed of change in China and across the region will no doubt call for a reassessment of his arguments in due course.

David Shambaugh, China Goes Global: The Partial Power. New York: Oxford University Press 2013. ISBN-13: 978-0199860142

Niv Horesh is Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham (UK) and Associate Professor in Chinese Studies, University of Western Sydney (Australia). His latest book is Chinese Money in Global Context (Stanford, 2013).

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