Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Skittish giant

In China Goes Global: The Partial Power, political scientist David Shambaugh portrays an uneven giant

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.   

Here's a book that has its title right -- a statement worth making because so many stretch or bend them for marketing purposes. And that's only the beginning of the elegant distillation George Washington University political scientist David Shambaugh provides in this useful volume, which offers a detailed yet concise portrait of a nation widely perceived as on the cusp of what the Chinese government often ascribes to its American rival: hegemony.

But not that that fast, Shambaugh says. While it's clear that China's rise has been wide, deep and rapid, it has a long way to go before it's truly a global rival for the United States. An effective response to that rise, he says, requires one to understand its contours, which are surprisingly jagged.

Shambaugh surveys China's place in the world by a series of metrics: diplomacy, economics, culture, and military prowess, among others. In every case he notes that the nation has made tremendous strides since Deng Xioping's transformative changes following 1978, reforms whose impact appears to be accelerating. And yet for a variety of reasons China falls far short of global dominance or influence. So, for example, its goods are flooding the world -- but not in elite, high-tech products. Its navy has been growing by leaps and bounds -- but its impact is largely limited to the western Pacific. It has an increasingly visible profile in international institutions, but its role tends to be passive, if not contradictory.

A big part of the reason for this, as Shambaugh explains, is a deep-seated sense of national ambivalence. Nursing a lingering sense of grievance for its century and a half of humiliation at the hands of Japan and the West from the early 19th to the mid 20th centuries, the Chinese government and its people view the prevailing international order with the skepticism, even hostility, of Third World Nation, even though such a label hardly describes it. At the same time, China's millennial understanding of itself as the Middle Kingdom makes it reluctant to push far beyond its territorial frontiers -- or to interact with other nations on a basis of genuine reciprocity.

These tendencies are only intensified by a Communist regime fretful of its grip on power at home, and inclined to fret about the domestic implications of any given foreign policy decision. Such a stance interferes with its stated goal of pursuing cultural influence along the lines famously described by Joseph Nye in his now-classic 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Since the essence of soft power is extra-governmental, and the Chinese government tends to filter as much as it practically can through the Communist Party's institutional apparatus, this goal is ever at cross-purposes with reality. The result, as Shambaugh explains, is a belief that "not to agree with Chinese official policy or to be critical is seen as misunderstanding China." As in so many other domains, insecurity breeds truculence -- a stance that has always roiled China's relations with its neighbors, and which sometimes roils its relations with the rest of the world, as indeed it has since the global Great Recession, which the Chinese government viewed as more of turning point in geopolitics than it has turned out to be, at least in the short term.

Under such circumstances, Shambaugh believes that the most practical approach to dealing with China is a constructivist one. Since "China is only shallowly integrated into the norms of global order, and it possesses little consciousness of global public goods or social 'responsibility,'" it's foolish to think it will accept long-prevailing Western protocols. It's even more foolish to believe that China can be contained, given its undeniable and growing economic and military might. Instead, Shambaugh believes, China must be pragmatically conditioned toward integration as a form of self-interest, with compromise as its most realistic option in achieving its goals. Actually, this sounds a little like a (soft power) version of containment as George Kennan originally imagined it -- a flexible instrument of adaptation rather than a knee-jerk reaction of opposition.

What of course no one can know is how long China will remain a partial power. Actually, a portrait of the United States in 1913 would in many ways be similar: an economically powerful, culturally marginal, and diplomatically ambivalent power that rest of the world was waiting for to grow up -- and dreading at the same time. Shambaugh has sifted through a lot of data to draw a complex but discernible trajectory. History suggests, however, that unexpected events have a way introducing fresh angles in the destinies of nations.