China Goes Global: The Partial Power by David Shambaugh

A neat model for the nascent superpower is proving elusive, says Kerry Brown

July 4, 2013

David Shambaugh’s study comes with an unexciting subtitle, The Partial Power. Here, he wrestles with a problem that has intensified over the past decade during China’s economic ascent, although it has existed for many decades. What sort of power is China? In the past, scholars called it more a civilisation than a country. This cultural self-sufficiency, no matter how outward-looking the country has become, has always been unsettling. Now it is more so.

As Shambaugh shows, China is indeed global. Its outward investments are shooting up. Confucian Institutes, controversially funded by the Chinese government, are now spreading notions of Chinese culture across the world – at least in theory. Xinhua and Chinese Central Television, along with the newspaper China Daily, are available worldwide. Chinese voices and perspectives are being broadcast on a scale unimaginable three decades ago. The great infantry of this process has been the 1.2 million overseas students from the country, more than 93 per cent of whom, astonishingly, are self-funded. Tellingly, according to Shambaugh, only a fifth of them have returned to China. But these are early days.

Orientalists were always accused of being far too keen to assign some ontological “difference” to Asia, and to China in particular. This has gone out of fashion, although there are ways in which it can be said that as a bearer of difference against the largely US-led Western liberal democratic political tradition, China is doing something significant. This, more than anything else, tends to get under the skin of observers. Some, like Martin Jacques, see it as the birth of a new modernity. Others see it as threatening and problematic. The most one can say at the moment, which this book among others testifies to, is that the neat model we want to fit China into has proved elusive.

Shambaugh concisely and comprehensively runs through the options, from a status quo power to a revisionist one, to a threat to global order carrying wounds from its searing experiences during the colonial era for which it seeks redress. Is it so surprising, in view of the speed of change in China over the past few decades and the size and diversity of the country, that there are so many discordant voices that now come from within, many of whom Shambaugh quotes? They include figures such as Yan Xuetong, who maps out a bolder role for China in the world, and Sheng Dingli, who seeks a country with a greater moral mandate. Realists probably dominate the central party and government ministries with which the world mostly deals, but internally, like anywhere else, people are struggling with finding out who they are and where they fit. Why should this be a straightforward process?

China Goes Global ranges across disciplines and perspectives, and Shambaugh’s conclusion – that China is a work in progress, with more potential danger lying in its own internal confusion and lack of cohesion than from any great threat posed to the world by its imperialist designs – is well supported. Even so, throughout the book there lurks the shadowy sense that in the modern world, when we speak of China’s dreams and hopes, we are also having to deal with American nightmares and fears.

This looms over a great deal of US scholarship on China’s international affairs. Beijing University intellectual Wang Hui commented in 2009 that the US lies at the edges of China. Sometimes, it even seems to invade its mental and cultural territory. The US has spread tangibly and intangibly across the world. For China, the brute fact is that in the 21st century we still have to define ourselves according to standards forged in the West and the US.

Throughout this study, while China’s dynamism is justly recognised, the US is presented as a sort of static entity. But America was different before and after 11 September 2001 and China has had to adapt to this. Europe, too, changed after the financial collapse. In that context, China has been as confused by how others have changed as it has been by the changes it has gone through itself. Despite the excellent contribution this readable overview makes, therefore, there is a sense that the model for China we seek is still not clear – largely because, after all is said and done, any model we come up with for it more often than not will say something about ourselves.

China Goes Global: The Partial Power

By David Shambaugh
Oxford University Press, 320pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780199860142
Published 7 March 2013

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Reader's comments (1)

Well done, Kerry. It remains to be seen whether China as a geopolitical entity can hold together as it sucks the natural resources out of the world in imitation of the US model, in its bid to continue to experience rapid economic growth. Pivotal will be the relationships between China and the US "satellite" states of (South) Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, which are already deeply entrenched in the building of the Chinese economy.