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Review by Paul Levine

coverChina Goes Global: The Partial Power by David Shambaugh. Oxford University Press, 2013, ISBN: 978-0-19-986014-2, 409 pp., $29.95 (List), $22.19 (Amazon Hardcover), $16.20 (Paperback), $12.45 (Kindle), $21.95 (Audiobook).

In the Year of the Horse, relations between the United States and China may undergo a series of dramatic changes as President Barack Obama continues his “pivot” towards Asia and China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, seeks to reform the economy, control the political system and transform China’s global role. “The relationship between the United States and the PRC has rightly been described by officials on both sides as the most important bilateral relationship in the world,” notes David Shambaugh. “It is also the most complex one.”

This complexity is often undervalued in the media as “experts” seek to portray the relationship in the simple arithmetic of China’s rise and America’s decline. But as Shambaugh explains, “These two powers are interconnected in innumerable ways: strategically, diplomatically, economically, socially, culturally, environmentally, regionally, internationally, educationally, and in many other domains.” Thus holistic understanding of the interconnections is essential for comprehending global politics. “By many measures, they are the world’s two most important powers,” says Shambaugh. “The United States and China today have the world’s two largest economies, in aggregate the two largest military budgets and navies, are the two largest consumers of energy and importers of oil in the world, are the two largest emitters of greenhouse gasses and contributors to climate change, contribute the two largest numbers of Ph.D.s and patent applications in the world, and are the only two true global actors on the world stage today.”

David Shambaugh is the founding Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. The author of six previous books on China, he has now published China Goes Global, an invaluable assessment of China’s strengths and weaknesses as it comes to terms with its new international status. He describes himself as “a scholar, professor and public intellectual” who is impatient with the current academic emphasis on microanalyses and the journalistic weakness for sweeping generalizations. So he summarily rejects the apocalyptic conclusions of popular books like Martin Jacques’s When China Rules the World and Gordon G. Chang’s The Coming Collapse of China. Shambaugh concludes, “Some observers have already triumphantly proclaimed that China will ‘rule the world.’ This perspective is profoundly overstated and incorrect, in my view. I argue in this book that China has a very long way to go before it becomes–if it ever becomes–a truly global power. And it will never ‘rule the world.'”

Instead of presenting a narrow vertical analysis of one aspect, Shambaugh pursues a wide horizontal study of different “dimensions of China’s global footprints,” including diplomacy, economics, culture and security. According to Shambaugh, China’s self-understanding is shaped by two aspects of nationalism that are ambivalent if not schizophrenic: its vision of China’s long history as “the Middle Kingdom” and a memory of a “century of shame and humiliation” by foreign powers beginning with the Opium Wars in the 19th century. He concludes: “This is the yin and yang of Chinese diplomacy: extreme confidence and extreme insecurity.”

Not surprisingly, this ambivalence explains the often wildly fluctuating policies pursued by the CCP. For instance, Shambaugh notes that China’s budget for internal security is larger than its military budget. “For the Chinese, internal security has always been the essence of security.” In a similar fashion, China’s efforts to improve its international standing in the field of culture have been self-defeating because of repressive political control. Its one recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo, is in prison and the eight Nobel Prize winners of Chinese descent in science are all American citizens. No wonder that even the autocratic leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, concluded: “China political system is not attractive and they have no attractiveness as a model. China has little soft power.”

Perhaps this muddle is clearest in the field of diplomacy where Chinese policies have been alternatively unusually passive and unduly aggressive. China’s belligerent tone towards its Asian neighbors, especially Japan, is countered by its failure to reign in its unruly client state, North Korea. According to Assistant Foreign Minister Ye Lucheng, this is the result of opening up diplomatic decision making to a large number of players: “Compared with the past, when foreign policy was made in a small circle in the Zhongnanhai [central headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party], now it is much more open and pluralized. Our authoritarian system is now democratic.”

While Ye’s conception of democracy may be infected with “Chinese characteristics,” there is no doubt that decision-making has become more diffuse. Another Foreign Ministry official, who is now China’s Ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, explains:

Diplomacy is no longer the business of a few elite people. It is increasingly embedded in the public and public opinion. Even within the government, there are so many voices–the PLA, companies, ministries, scholars. This makes the process of decision making extremely complicated. This is very new and very challenging for the Foreign Ministry. China is now just like the U.S. in terms of the number of players in the process. This is an irreversible process. We cannot stop it. We must manage it.

The results are often bewildering. Ye Lucheng compares the process of making policy to driving a car. “We try to drive the car forward, but sometimes do not know the directions,” he says. “Sometimes there are too many backseat drivers in the car, arguing over the map. All the actors are trying to influence policy making–provincial leaders, interest groups, oil companies, and others. This is a big challenge for the MFA.” Xi Jinping’s moves to centralize power in his own hands is an obvious response to the diffusion of decision making that has taken place since the death of Deng Xiaopeng. Whether he will succeed is one of the open questions in the Year of the Horse.

What is not open to question is China’s inability to rule the world. In a vast country where several hundred million impoverished people still lack indoor plumbing, adequate health care or the ability to determine their lives, discussion of China’s preemptive power is presumptuous.* “China is the world’s most important rising power,” says Shambaugh, but it is still only a “partial power.” He quotes approvingly an observation by international relations guru, Joseph Nye: “The greatest danger we have is overestimating China and China overestimating itself. China is nowhere near close to the United States. So this magnification of China, which creates fear in the U.S. and hubris in China, is the biggest danger we face.” Even more succinct is the evaluation of an unnamed Chinese scholar: “China cannot even manage itself–how can it manage the world?”End.

*According to the World Bank (2008) 172 million Chinese earned under $1.25 per day. 394 million earned under $2 per day, and 528 million earned under $2.50 per day. Though we hear daily tales of China’s new millionaires, 948 million Chinese (71.6%) earned less than $5 per day. Sometimes, statistics are misleading. China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. “Judged by GDP, Japan’s economy is now smaller than China’s,” notes The Economist. But, according to the UN, Japan was almost 2.8 time wealthier than China in 2008.”


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

imagePaul Levine is Emeritus Professor of American Literature at Copenhagen University. He was born in Brooklyn, attended Wesleyan and Princeton and received a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard. Levine taught at Wesleyan, Rochester and York (Toronto) Universities before becoming the first Professor of American Literature in Copenhagen (1975-2006). He also held the Salgo Chair in American Studies at Eötvös Lorand University in Budapest (1986-9) and directed the annual Athens American Studies Seminar for fifteen years (1994-2009). He publishes widely on literature, art, film and culture. He collaborated with E. L. Doctorow on a volume of the novelist’s Screenplays (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) and a new edition of America Since 1945: The American Moment, (with Harry Papasotiriou) was published by Palgrave in 2010. He has twice received royal honors in Denmark and holds the title of Ridder af Dannebrogorden, 1st Kl. (2000).
Levine first went to China in 2001 at the invitation of the State Department to help create a graduate program in American Studies at ECNU (East China Normal University, Shanghai). In 2004 he was awarded a Fulbright Professorship at ECNU for three semesters. After retiring from Copenhagen in 2006, he served as director of regional studies and the new Center for International Studies (2007-11) at Shantou University in Guangdong Province. He and his wife, Lily Varidaki-Levine, now live in Copenhagen and Athens.

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