Charting China’s Future: Domestic and International Challenges

  • Published

Charting China’s Future: Domestic and International Challenges edited by David Shambaugh. Routledge, 2011, 187 pp.

As the title suggests, this book is an attempt to forecast China’s future development. Surrounding himself with a team of established experts in their respective fields, editor David Shambaugh has done a fine job of producing a reasonable picture of the situation in China at the time of publication (2011) and the gaps and weaknesses China still faces in its efforts to play a major role in the world.

Kjeld Erik Brodsgaard and Rod Wye focus on China’s domestic politics in their respective chapters. The greater professionalization and institutionalization within China’s political system itself in the party committees and the administrative bureaucracy have contributed to greater stability. However, if democratization is not in the cards for China’s political system, the co-optation of people outside traditional circles–such as businesspeople and technocrats, for instance–will have gone to some length in ensuring the government is more responsive to popular demands.

Professor Pitman Potter’s paper on the state of China’s legal regime is perhaps what readers will benefit the most from since it is an area rarely mentioned in traditional media. Potter focuses his attention on the relationship between the state/party and the courts. The country has taken a gigantic step since China’s opening in 1978 to establish a legal framework in various fields of the economy. Potter explains that while the legislature has played an active role in developing the legal system in these various areas, it has been left to the administrative apparatus to enforce the law with gaps between the intent of the law and its application. What this situation suggests is that the political leadership remains distrustful of an independent court system. Still, there are positive signs that things may change with the emergence of law schools across the country and the growing ranks of legal specialists.

In the field of foreign relations, there are some interesting assessments that while off the mark in the shorter term, remain on target in the longer term. This is hardly surprising given what has happened in the past decade. The contributors could hardly have predicted the election of Donald Trump or Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan in 2016–two developments that were bound to lead to some tremors in China-US relations. Nor could anyone have foreseen the extent to which President Xi Jinping would stand out relative to his predecessors both domestically and abroad.

Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan provides a grounded evaluation of US-China, China-EU, and China-Russia relations given the facts that were before him at the time. It clearly appears that China was then cleverly making use of the international regime to develop its economy and defend its interests relative to Taiwan. Cabestan’s assessment of the China-EU relationship has withstood the test of time. While the relationship has grown in importance, it has run into various problems. They include China’s treatment of Tibetans and the Uighurs and its aggressive repression of domestic activists, all issues that have remained in the headlines under Xi Jinping. If the EU has grown more critical of China, it is not clear to what extent Brexit or the pandemic may have weakened that stance. In recent maneuvers in the South China Sea, the British, French, and even German navies were all represented. It appears that China may have overplayed its hand here.  

Regarding Russia, Cabestan highlights the contradiction between external signs of cooperation between both countries against actions on the ground that suggest a lack of complete trust. The relationship might survive because on the one hand China is eager to secure as much oil and gas supply as it can and which Russia has plenty of, and on the other hand, Russia remains isolated on the international scene with its invasion and partial occupation of Georgia. As the US steers away from Afghanistan and toward China, the China-Russia relationship may strengthen or weaken depending on various scenarios.

The developing world is where China’s overseas commercial strategy has been most successful. Whether it is Africa, the Middle East, or the Western Hemisphere (Latin America), trade has grown exponentially in both directions. And trade buys influence. Whether it is at the UN or the World Health Organization, China has been able to count on the massive support of its trading partners in the developing world. This remains true today. Professor Peter Ferdinand concludes his essay by stating that China will continue to be active in the developing world, a prediction borne by the facts since then.

In his contribution, Professor Shambaugh highlights the phenomenal growth of the Chinese military across the full spectrum. He also notes China’s initiatives in peacekeeping operations. He mentions an interesting ongoing debate in the Chinese military that would not be totally alien to an American audience: nativist isolationists versus global multilateralists. It is unclear at this point who is ahead, despite the media noise. Shambaugh concludes his assessment by stating that conflicts or concerns closer to home (Tibet, Taiwan, and the South China Sea) will act as a restraint on China’s will to get involved further afield.

China and its relations to Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia are taken up by Michael Yahuda and Anne Booth, respectively. Yahuda, an observer of the region for decades, brings out the complexities of the relationship in the sensitivities between China, South Korea, and Japan in the military field as well as the mutual trade interdependence of the three economies.

Taiwan, a hotspot at the present time, was relatively calm when Ramon Myers and Dafydd Fell wrote their respective chapters. What transpires from their detailed analysis is that if the trade relationship has strengthened, its impact on the political component remains mired in a divided constituency on future steps. Given the current atmosphere, this assessment was ominous at the time.

All in all, the book is a worthy effort at diagnosing China’s challenges and future prospects–although they must be considered against developments since the book was written.

   Richard Desjardins
Canadian public servant, retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."