China Goes Global: The Partial Power

China Goes Global

Author:      David Shambaugh

ISBN:           9780199860142

Publisher:  Oxford University Press

Year:           2013

Price:           £19.99


Reviewed by Romi Jain, Vice President, Indian Journal of Asian Affairs

A leading expert on China, David Shambaugh ventures out to wipe the mist of awe and hype off the scholarly lenses in examining China’s “global footprints” and to challenge the perception held by global publics that China is already a global power. In fact, Shambaugh informs that his China Goes Global is an outcome of his “frustration with the academic China field” and of the need to understand China’s “global emergence in its totality”(p.x). Thus, this well-researched book of eight chapters examines the salient dimensions of China’s global presence: diplomacy, governance, economy, culture, and security/military, with a key argument that China “lacks real global power” (p.8). The word “real” here is quite interesting. First, it seems to have been carefully chosen as a modifier, reflecting a safer side approach in arguments over China’s power status. Second, it indicates the author’s preference for a particular definition of power, the one given by Joseph S. Nye, viz., influence over the outcome of a situation. Hence, Shambaugh avers that though China is the world’s second leading power after the United States, it is at best a partial power or an international actor without influence over nations and events.

The first two chapters on China’s global impact and global identity set the tone of the book, demonstrating an impressive organization—presenting debate and discourse before conducting the analysis. Hence, the reader gets to understand the seven-fold spectrum of the schools of thought inside China on its international identity, such as Nativism and Realism, which Shambaugh says posits it as a country with “multiple international identities” and a “conflicted country in its international persona” (p.43).

The subsequent chapters- 3 to 7- deal with individual domains of China’s global presence. In Chapter 3, Shambaugh finds that Chinese diplomacy, driven by narrow national interests, is “remarkably risk-averse.” In Chapter 4 on global governance, he concludes that we cannot expect China to become a “full-fledged ‘responsible international stakeholder’ anytime soon” (p.155) since it perceives global governance as a Western mechanism to curb its growth and on account of its views about iniquitous North-South relations. At the same time, Shambaugh explains that China’s engagement in international institutions and on global issues has been progressively increasing and is generally positive. In Chapter 5, Shambaugh examines four aspects of China’s global economic presence—trade, energy markets, investment, and aid, pointing out that its deep global impact is confined to the first two. He hits the nail on the head when he says that Chinese products have “poor international brand recognition”, apart from highlighting limitations of China’s multinational corporations such as “lack of global management experience.” This illumination is important in the hoopla of China’s spectacular economic progress.

Chapter 6 underscores that culturally, China has a “mixed-to-negative global reputation” with a soft power deficit on many counts such as lack of global appeal of its cultural products in terms of trend-setting. The situation is so in spite of the Chinese government’s huge investment in soft power. In this regard, Shambaugh makes a terse explanatory point that soft power is “earned”, not bought. Chapter 7 points out that despite its rapid military modernization, China remains a regional military power with a very limited “global military footprint” in terms of foreign bases or stationed troops(outside the UN auspices). In other words, Shambaugh is comparing China’s military outreach to that of America’s. But it is debatable whether new claimants to global power can feasibly extend their military footprints, matching America’s, in the post Cold War era that is increasingly marked by “interdependence” and altered equations in bilateral relationships.

In the final chapter titled “Coping with a Globalized China,” Shambaugh concludes that China is a partial power, conceding that in the economic realm it goes beyond it. He cautions us that “it is not so much an aggressive or threatening China with which the world should be concerned, but rather an insecure, confused, frustrated, angry, dissatisfied, selfish, truculent, and lonely power.” At the end, he states that “China is beginning to change the world”(p.317)—an acknowledgment that sounds peculiar in the face of his overwhelming critique of China’s global power status.

Some interesting observations and thoughts emerge. First, while this book would remind the Chinese leadership of China’s real stature and what more they need to do, it might comfort policymakers in America or elsewhere (in as much as they perceive China as a rival) that China is actually far behind. However, it would be risky for them to infer that China does not pose challenge of the magnitude that they had actually assumed. It is up to them whether they want to be prepared for the possible monumental rise of China or rest content with what China is currently not.  Second, it is a stark reality that the Iraq war contributed to a decline in America’s “global attractiveness” or soft power, as Joseph Nye noted in Foreign Affairs (2004). In contrast, China with its trumpeted slogan of “non-interference” has been able to ingratiate itself with other countries, including the US foes, though in its own neighborhood it does not abjure muscle-flexing as a strategic move. This is a Chinese version of global diplomacy which needs to be factored in evaluation of China’s diplomatic prowess. Third, China’s national priorities and preferences are determined by the perceptions and goals of its authoritarian regime, for instance, in the global governance domain. As such, China will not be interested in ‘influencing’ the events that have no direct bearing on its national interest and where any intervention would be a burden on its energy, time and resources. Thus, it would be contentious to analyze China’s global postures solely from the lens of influence, patterned on America’s global role and guided by a subjective interpretation of power. Hence, though convincing in its analysis through what it reveals, the book sets off a debate whether China can claim a global power status beyond the yardstick of influence in global affairs.

The book has several primary strengths. First, it is thought-provoking, engaging, lucid, and factually rich. A key contributory factor is the methodology, comprising not only analysis and research but also the author’s interviews with more than a hundred individuals, mainly in Beijing. Second, as Shambaugh says, his is a functional approach in contrast to a “geographical organization of study” that involves interactions with the different regions and countries. This approach is that of a diver in contrast to that of an oarsman. Hence, for scholars of international relations, this study can be a useful example of a robust analytical prism.

Overall, China Goes Global is an excellent contribution to China studies and is indispensable for all who wish to understand and analyze China’s global role.

Suggested citation:

Jain, Romi (2014). Review of “China Goes Global: The Partial Power”, by David Shambaugh, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no.24, Internet file: