China Goes Global: The Partial Power

By Phar Kim Beng
Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena
Twitter: @indo_pan

— — —

The very word China often invites awe, if not sheer respect. China, after all, has one of the world’s longest surviving civilizations; it is the world’s most populous nation; indeed one supported by an increasingly sophisticated military power on land, in the air, at the sea, and in the space as well.

But China, according to David Shambaugh, one of the world’s leading Sinologists, is but a partial power. Within and across every sector, China has deep-seated problems. Economically, China may produce high growth, but it is tied down by low-quality growth as well. Politically, it may be able to hold the country together, but the burgeoning middle class also makes for a very demanding citizenry. Militarily, it is capable of developing its own weapons platforms, but it has no friends and allies to assist China.In every metric and measure, China is a ticking time bomb, in that sense.

Environmentally, China has become a serious disaster unto itself, and the rest of the world, emitting toxic pollutants that can be traced as far as the Indian Ocean.

In this sense, Shambaugh’s work mirrors the view of the late Dr. Geral Segan, formerly the director of research at the Institute of International and Strategic Studies (IISS), in London. Shambaugh was a professor at the University of London when Dr. Gerald Segal was leading the Asian studies program at IISS. Both may have agreed as far back as 1995, that China was but a theatrical power — — one adept at showing the most impressive side of its prowess, while constantly struggling with its own domestic turbulence.

Shambaugh, however, did not go where Gordan Chang did, to suggest if China “will collapse ?” By avoiding such dramatization, this book was able to capture the many impressive achievements of China while concurrently demonstrating their dilemmas. In this sense, China is an incomplete power, one that cannot project it’s military and political might globally as yet. It is nonetheless a regional giant that all have to respect.

That being said, the book was written during the tenure of President Hu Jing Tao, whose own rule was often hamstrung by ex-President Jiang Zemin. President Xi Jin Ping, whom David Shambaugh did not cover, has introduced the ambitious “One Maritime Belt, and One Silk Road (OBOR),” which is literally a 40–50 year ‘long march’ to connecting China with the rest of the world backed by various physical infrastructure projects that can ensure China’s critical role, as part of the world’s logistical supply chain.

This strategy, in a way, is not entirely different from the British Empire’s dominance of the Seven Seas between the 18th-19th century, until its demise at the Second World War. Can China achieve this feat without being caught in a cataclysmic war that can destroy its impressive achievements globally?

That is the major question that David Shambaugh did not address. But his book was a solid primer to ask the readers to ponder of the partial nature of the Great Power.



Founder of Strategic Indo-Pacific Arena (

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store