China Goes Global: The Partial Power

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China Goes Global: The Partial Power by David Shambaugh, Oxford University Press, 2013, 410 pp. 

No one appears to doubt that China is becoming an important international actor—its investments seem to trickle down to every corner of the world, and its outreach has already started to shift established frameworks of global affairs. It is, therefore, unsurprising that there would be many contested explanations about the motivations backstopping Chinese policy making in what is nearly universally acknowledged to be the “Asian century.” Beijing’s enhanced confidence and ability to fashion international relations seem to attest both to the transformations in and the transformative potential of Chinese foreign policy attitudes. The established purview is that it is the complex interaction between the very turbulence of the post–Cold War period and the ability to maintain consistent levels of economic growth that have allowed China to demonstrate its growing capacities to navigate the turbulent dynamics of world affairs. Such governance capacities seem to have provoked both interest and anxiety.

David Shambaugh, a professor of international affairs in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University and an old China hand, is the perfect candidate to address many of the quandaries and uncertainties about what he calls “China going global.” Shambaugh’s proposition is that while China is indeed engaged either economically or politically (or both) in many countries and regions of the world, its impact is still far short of that of a global power. Instead, while “China is present and active in various parts of the globe and in various functional spheres, it is not (yet) influencing or shaping actions or events in various parts of the world”(p. 8). It is for this reason that Shambaugh coins the term “partial power,” which appears in the subtitle to his book. According to him, partial power reflects both China’s capacities and its self-understanding on the world stage. On the one hand, China has next to no leverage in many parts of the world or on major international issues, cannot “actively contribute to solving problems,” and therefore “ ‘punches way below its weight’ in international diplomacy” (p. 309). In fact, Shambaugh goes as far as suggesting that China “may better be thought as a ‘middle power’ and a regional power like Australia, Brazil, Britain, France, India, Japan, or Russia”(p. 310).

On the other hand, Shambaugh argues that “China is not ready for global leadership”—not only because it lacks the toolbox of a global power, but because it does not have the ideational inclination to do so (p. 311). As he points out, it is “a very narrow-minded, self-interested, realist state, seeking only to maximize its own national interests and power. It cares little for global governance and enforcing global standards of behavior” (p. 310). As a result, China has “minimal soft power and a mixed-to-poor international image”(p. 207). Shambaugh therefore contends that China is “a lonely power, lacking close friends and possessing no allies. . . . In other words, China is in the community of nations but is in many ways not really part of the community; it is formally involved, but it is not normatively integrated”(p. 7). It is for these reasons that rather than China‘s rise, Shambaugh suggests that it is far better to speak about its spread. The necessary qualification is that these inferences should not be taken as an indication that China will not become a global power or that its influence will not be impacting the patterns of world affairs. Instead, what Shambaugh is arguing is that China is not there yet—it has yet to develop the mindset for and skills of a global power; in fact, that is why he refers to it as a partial power.

While not uncontroversial, the book develops this argument cogently by looking in turn at China’s nascent international identities, its diplomatic initiatives, its global governance contributions, its global economic outreach, its global cultural impact, and its global security presence. This comprehensive overview offers a thoughtful and rarely accessible consideration of China’s emerging international agency. As Shambaugh acknowledges in the preface, his efforts have been largely motivated by his “frustration with the academic China field” and, in particular, with its failure to offer a generalizable picture of “China’s global emergence in its “totality” (p. x). In this context, his analysis promotes a much broader and thorough understanding of China’s global roles than the ones advanced in the existing literature. Not surprisingly, therefore, much of the criticism that Shambaugh’s book will likely attract is going to target the very motivation and methods on which it relies for the explanation, understanding, and translation of China to its readers. It is also expected, that many will find problematic (to say the least) Shambaugh’s proposition that China is a partial power. Indeed, China might not yet have the influence required by a global power; however, its impact is far greater than a mere presence. In fact, if one were to use Shambaugh’s criteria and apply them to the United States (which provides the benchmark for a global power), it is doubtful whether it will actually meet them, and, perhaps, one might have to consider rebranding the United States as a partial power itself.

Yet, one is almost tempted to say that such provocation was what Shambaugh was after. It is this kind of contestation that is likely to produce extensive and comprehensive analyses of the kind that his book represents. For if one were indeed to offer a critical reading of Shambaugh’s efforts, it will almost by default have to offer broad contextualizations that Shambaugh argues are wanting in the current academic literature. His account offers a stimulating framework for the discussion of the prospective trajectories of China’s international interactions. At the same time, the book makes available ample evidence of the contested nature of China’s rise to global prominence. What emerges is a framing of world affairs premised on the fusion of complex innovation and its creative contextualization within the idiosyncratic experience of China. In this respect, Shambaugh’s analysis provides thoughtful reconsiderations of China’s global roles as well as offers a wealth of solid knowledge on the evolution, patterns, and practices of China’s external relations. Thus, to the buffs of China’s international affairs, his book provides a superbly researched examination of the strategic underpinnings of Beijing’s international agency. It is expected that the book will be welcomed by students and scholars alike. At the same time, Shambaugh’s careful process tracing of this complex topic of current global politics provides a compelling perspective that is bound to attract policy makers and pundits interested in Chinese foreign policy.

Emilian R. Kavalski, PhD
Associate Professor of Global Studies
Institute for Social Justice Australian Catholic University

"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."