China Is a Different Kind of Global Power

Don’t expect China to become another United States. It’s a good thing that China is just being China.

China Is a Different Kind of Global Power
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Renowned China scholar David Shambaugh published an article in The National Interest, asking a very important question: is China a global power? His conclusion is that China is not a global power, at least not yet. His main argument is that China is still very limited in five important dimensions of global power, i.e., international diplomacy, military capabilities, cultural presence, economic power, and domestic system.

They are many good points in Shambaugh’s argument. For example, he points out that China has been rather reactive and passive in global affairs. This has been true for the last three decades, since China embarked on the “reform and opening” movement in 1978. Deng Xiaoping’s famous doctrine “keep a low profile” has essentially become China’s grand strategy since then. At times, China’s diplomacy appears clumsy and difficult to make sense of. China is still learning how to present herself in a sophisticated way on the global stage. Shambaugh is particularly right when he says, “China does not lead. It does not shape international diplomacy, drive other nations’ policies, forge global consensus, put together coalitions or solve problems.”

However, his main argument that China is not a global power is flawed for three important reasons. First, in Shambaugh’s article the definition of global power is not always well-defined. Clearly, Shambaugh is using the U.S. as model of global power. But the U.S. is not just a global power, it is a global hegemon in many ways. Indeed, the influence of the U.S. on other states is unprecedented in human history, thus rendering it unfair to compare China or any other global power to the United States. In addition, the U.S. was fortunate in some sense because World War I and World War II basically destroyed other great powers, thereby simply handing superpower status to the United States. It is impossible for China to become another U.S. for a variety of historical, cultural, and social reasons. In this sense, whether or not China is a global power must be judged upon China’s relationships with many other equal states.

Also, Shambaugh underestimates the significance of material capabilities. Out of five indicators used by Shambaugh to judge China’s status, two of them (military power and economic power) are material factors. The other three, particularly cultural presence, are usually byproducts of material power. One should keep in mind that the U.S. was similarly regarded by the so-called advanced European powers as a backward culture even though its economy became the largest one in the late 19th century. The U.S. then was not a strong military power nor a diplomatic power. So the point here is that it is perfectly normal that a country first becomes an economic power, then a military power, and lastly a cultural power. In sum, one could argue that all other good things, like cultural influence and so on, eventually derive from material capabilities.

Secondly, even if Shambaugh’s definition of global power is correct, he overestimates the utility of pursuing an active diplomacy. In other words, active diplomacy might not be a good thing. Just look at the mess in Iraq right now. Many scholars have rightly pointed out that the current crisis in Iraq has a lot to do with George W. Bush’s decision more than 10 years ago to invade Iraq based on flawed intelligence and ulterior motives. The Bush administration was certainly engaging in active diplomacy, but Iraq and the whole Middle East region would be better off if the U.S. had adopted a more passive approach to Iraq. This is a lesson that proponents of active diplomacy take to heart.

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Finally, Shambaugh’s prediction of China’s development is overly pessimistic. Although he is right that people should not be overly optimistic about China’s future and declare China the winner too soon, his analysis of China’s many pressing domestic problems is nothing new. Problems such as income inequality and environmental issues have existed for the past three decades in China and those didn’t stop China’s development.

In 1999, Gerald Segal published a famous article in Foreign Affairs titled “Does China Matter?” which essentially asked the same question Shambaugh tried to answer in his new article. Today virtually nobody would ask the question “does China matter” as Beijing has indisputably become a global power in many dimensions. It is possible that 15 to 20 years from now, scholars and pundits will no long ask the question, “Is China a global power?” Instead, they probably will ask: “How can China do more to contribute to the international society?” Indeed, by being a different kind of global power, China has much to offer to the international community just as it has much it can learn from other countries.