The Ambivalent Would-Be Hegemon: China is far too angry, lonely, mercantilist and domestically insecure to be considered a true global power

July 3, 2013, 12:55 p.m. ET

The Ambivalent Would-Be Hegemon

China is far too angry, lonely, mercantilist and domestically insecure to be considered a true global power.


To what extent has China gone global in its diplomacy, support for global governance, trade and investment, soft power and military reach? David Shambaugh, a professor of political science at George Washington University and one of America’s leading China watchers, attempts to answer this question by drawing on a multitude of interviews with key players in China and around the world, as well as an extensive research effort. The result is a first-rate book that the nonacademic world will savor.

Mr. Shambaugh opens with a valuable synopsis of China’s internal debate about its global identity. Chinese academics remain uncertain about their state’s “international personae,” resulting in a conflicted identity. This scholarly elite is composed largely of a “left wing” with a strong nativist streak and a realist bent—meaning they believe security comes from across-the-board self-strengthening.China Goes Global: The Partial Power

By David Shambaugh
Oxford University Press, 432 pages, $29.95

As a result, China’s foreign policy statements focus more on its moral right to once again be treated as a great power, and less on the benefits it will bring to the world. And while one hears voices on the margins expressing a “selective multilateralist” or a “globalist” viewpoint, Mr. Shambaugh sees the more troublesome views dominating the discourse about China’s place in the world.

In most arenas, the book describes China as a “partial power,” hence the subtitle. That means it punches below its weight, and fails to qualify as a great power.

After a detailed analysis of its foreign policy establishment and ties to major countries and regions, Mr. Shambaugh characterizes China as a “cautious diplomatic actor.” In terms of global governance, China is “moderately revisionist,” challenging some of the way institutions that have governed state relations since World War II are run. But more generally, China is uninterested in tackling the problems of global governance except as they impact domestic interests.

In a detailed chapter on China’s military reach, Mr. Shambaugh notes that China had to hire foreign companies to evacuate its 35,000 citizens from war-torn Libya due to a lack of long-range aircraft and ships. This is an indicator, he argues, that the country has not yet focused on its interests in the far abroad: “Beijing’s continuing ambivalence over international involvements and self-preoccupation with domestic development and protecting its irredentist interests (Taiwan, Tibet, maritime claims) will continue to have a limiting effect on China’s global security role.”

So, too, will China’s own concerns about the cost of being a hegemon. Even in the economic sphere, Mr. Shambaugh finds China to be a partial power, despite the fact that China is now the leading trade partner of 120 nations, and despite the fact that major countries such as Australia depend on China’s economic growth for their own wellbeing. While its outward investment is growing, Chinese companies still play a relatively small role in other markets.

Mr. Shambaugh’s chapter on “soft power” covers the gamut of components that fall under this concept: music, art, film, fashion, global media, educational exchanges and government efforts to promote China’s image abroad; in effect, all forms China uses to promote a positive cultural portrait. Nevertheless, here too he finds a “soft power deficit” caused largely by foreign perceptions of its authoritarian political system.

Moreover, assertions that China is promoting a “harmonious world” and orchestrating a “peaceful rise” gain little traction in much of East Asia, as China’s assertive behavior over territorial disputes since 2010 heighten concerns that its rise will be more disruptive than Chinese propaganda asserts. For Mr. Shambaugh, actions speak louder than words and China should stop “trying to buy soft power, rather than build it.”

While throughout the book, Mr. Shambaugh only hints at the depth of his views, in the short closing chapter, he takes off the gloves. Within one page he calls China dissatisfied, frustrated, aggrieved, angry, narrow-minded, self-interested, mercantilist, lonely, domestically insecure, experiencing distrust with most nations in the world.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Shambaugh is convinced that unless China supplements its “institutional integration”—joining international organizations—with “normative integration,” whereby it adopts the rules of the liberal world order that drive these multilateral arrangements, “it is not ready for global leadership.”

Mr. Shambaugh has written a terrific book whose breadth and mastery of detail measures China’s global reach. Nevertheless, I remain unclear whether he sees his findings—that China is indeed only a partial power—as a relief, or as a toxic cocktail based on the blending of limited capabilities and “ambition without accountability.” Clearly he worries that if China does become a great power while retaining all these negative characteristics, it will use its newfound influence to alter the existing liberal order for the worse.

Mr. Zweig is a chair professor of political science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: