The Illusion of Chinese Weakness

Just because China exercises restraint with regards to issues not in its direct national interest, does not necessarily make it a diplomatically weak nation.

The rise of China is perhaps the defining event of our epoch. Although predictions of the future are notoriously unreliable, such a monumental shift in the global order, which is currently being witnessed from one characterized by expansive Western domination, should not be underestimated and could well prove to be comparable in magnitude with the sack of Rome. Rigorous, logical and evidential analysis of China's development and influence on world affairs is therefore of paramount importance.

On June 25 2014, The National Interest published an article by the respected political scientist Professor David Shambaugh arguing that despite the impressive list of Chinese achievements and rapid advancements, the People's Republic of China (PRC) is far from approaching any state of parity with the United States in terms of great-power status. Although there is merit in criticizing the plethora of hyperbolic commentaries regarding China's rise, the analysis contains many erroneous factual statements, inconsistencies and logical fallacies.

Professor Shambaugh details Chinese capabilities which make it a viable contender as the world's foremost power. These include, verbatim: the world’s largest population, a large continental land mass, the world’s second-largest economy, the world’s largest foreign-exchange reserves, the world’s second-largest military budget, the world's largest standing armed forces, a manned space program, an aircraft carrier, the world’s largest national expressway network and the world’s best high-speed rail system. China is the world’s leading trading nation, the world’s largest consumer of energy, the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitter, the world’s second-largest recipient and third-largest originator of foreign direct investment and the world’s largest producer of many goods.

Although one may dispute the list provided, for example, a large population and land mass did not prevent China succumbing to Britain in the two Opium Wars, Shambaugh maintains that it provides the PRC with a solid claim to great-power status. Nevertheless, Chinese weaknesses in the realms of international diplomacy, military might, cultural influence, economic dynamism and miscellaneous factors seriously diminish China's international standing, invalidating claims that it will soon surpass the United States in the global hierarchy.

Due to space and time constraints, this essay will systematically assess only one element of the original thesis: that China is ineffectual diplomatically; it is a passive and selfish nation seriously undermining its international power.

The Definition of Power

Shambaugh uses the definition of power as given by the political scientist Robert Dahl: country A is more powerful than country B if “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.” Moreover, the essay states:

“capabilities that are not converted into actions toward achieving certain ends are not worth much. Their existence may have an impressive or deterrent effect, but it is the ability to influence the action of another or the outcome of an event that matters. There are, of course, various means by which nations use their capabilities to influence the actions of others and the course of events: attraction, persuasion, co-optation, coercion, remuneration, inducement, or the threat or use of force. Power and its exercise are therefore intrinsically relational: the use of these and other instruments toward others in order to influence a situation to one’s own benefit.”

The most pertinent question is: is the only valid definition of power the use of capabilities to compel weaker states to make decisions contrary to their natural inclinations or long-term interests? Without entering too deeply into semantics, it may be argued that the capability to attract, persuade, co-opt, coerce, remunerate, induce or threaten is evidence that power exists, whether overt or concealed. The fact that the article states that China has impressive capabilities in this regard is evidence therefore that its power is tangible and real. Whether China decides to exercise these capabilities according to, or contrary to, Western interests or favors a state of armed neutrality is irrelevant if the faculty to do so is extant.

Stating that China does not implement its capabilities in a realist sense and hence lacks power is a fundamental occidental misunderstanding of oriental exercise of power and conduct of international relations. It is not possible to comprehend Chinese attitudes toward the employment of capabilities to project power through recourse to Western realpolitik or Enlightenment ideologies. China views its international relations through the prism of its own historical and philosophical traditions, which are neither superior nor inferior to any other. To argue otherwise would be to claim absolute truth in one’s own moral and cultural values and require comprehensive substantiation.

Is China diplomatically isolated?

Shambaugh states that China does not actively engage in international affairs and is isolated diplomatically, which detracts substantially from Chinese power. This contention is refuted by the article itself with the statement:

“in formal respects, China’s diplomacy has truly gone global. . . . Today, Beijing enjoys diplomatic relations with 175 countries, is a member of more than 150 international organizations and is party to more than three hundred multilateral treaties. It receives far more visiting foreign dignitaries every year than any other nation, and its own leaders travel the world regularly. . . . It’s a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a member of the G-20 and other key global bodies, and a participant in all major international summits.”

One may also add Chinese participation in the China-CELAC partnership, the BRICS development forum and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Is a nation that “receives far more visiting foreign dignitaries every year than any other nation” diplomatically isolated and lack influence? Furthermore, does isolationism imply weakness? If so, would the United States' decision not to participate in the League of Nations and pursue such a policy mean that it lacked power in the interwar period at a time when it achieved naval parity with the United Kingdom?

He also claims that “[China] is a passive and often-reluctant participant in multilateral efforts organized by others (usually the United States),” especially during global crises such as Ukraine and Syria. Moreover, “China does not lead. It does not shape international diplomacy, drive other nations’ policies, forge global consensus, put together coalitions or solve problems.”

A more logical conclusion is that despite the importance of Syria and Ukraine in Western opinion, these issues are irrelevant to Chinese strategic thinking. In relation to Syria, what would China gain from participation? Cui Bono? China has little to gain from the ousting of President Assad; similarly it has little to gain from his remaining in power. Moreover, as the article states, China has the capability to act; it chooses not to engage, despite pleas from the United States indicating that China is largely immune to compulsion in the execution of its foreign policy. If country A (the United States) cannot compel, coerce or persuade country B (China) to follow a course contrary to what it otherwise would, this indicates that a state of parity, or near parity, exists between the United States and China, thereby invalidating the initial hypothesis that China is considerably far from surpassing the United States.

China has long expressed its support for a Westphalian international order rejecting coercive or unwelcome intrusions into the internal affairs of other states, from civil wars to domestic policy, from religion or to effect regime change where the issue does not have a direct impact on China's national security. Its ambivalence to the Arab Spring and the Ukraine crisis may also be explained in terms of this Chinese international world view. Its unwillingness to act on these matters is far from characteristic of a weak, irresponsible power with little regard for international diplomacy or norms. As Sun Tzu states in The Art of War, “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

Are Chinese diplomatic efforts clumsy?

The original article defines Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, human rights, territorial disputes and “clumsy” efforts to defend these issues as “being counterproductive to [China’s] image and its goals.” Is there any evidence in support of this assertion? Currently no sovereign nation officially recognizes a Xinjiang or Tibetan government in exile and only twenty-one countries recognize the Republic of China (Taiwan). Similarly, international criticism of human rights and “occupied” territories does not lessen Chinese influence. Comparable accusations regarding human-rights abuses, such as the retention of the death penalty, extraordinary rendition and the invasion of other nations without UN support, have also been leveled at the United States, yet this does not detract from relative U.S. power in the original analysis.

With regard to Taiwan, a Chinese secessionist issue, the American Civil War and resulting prohibition of succession in U.S. law did little to impede the ascendency of the United States in the nineteenth century. Similarly, the Taiwan question is unlikely to affect China's rise in the twenty-first. Analogous arguments exist concerning Tibet and Xinjiang; The annexation of Northern Mexico and Texas and westward expansion by the United States were of little consequence to U.S. preeminence. Likewise, Chinese occupation of Xinjiang and Tibet are likely to do little to hinder Chinese diplomacy.

Does China genuinely attempt international problem solving?

A further example stated in the essay as limiting China's global influence is Beijing's reticence to engage in proactive global problem solving, instead preferring “hollow invocations” that disputes should be solved through “peaceful means” and “win-win negotiations.”

Firstly, does China vacillate more than any other historical great power? Secondly, the author would agree that sometimes indecisiveness is symptomatic of weakness; however, it may equally be attributable to antipathy or tactful diplomacy. Some may argue that the confrontational stance adopted by other nations has proved much more inept and refusal to employ “coercive measures” does not necessarily reflect a lack of ability. The Western inability to positively shape international events in the post–Cold War era, as evidenced by recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, bears testament to the often counterproductive nature of confrontational or coercive tactics. Such measures have often proven costly in human, economic and reputational terms. China’s circumspection in furthering its national interest through the threat or application of force, instead preferring “peaceful means” and “win-win situations,” is evidenced by its handling of the Taiwan question. The inexorable progress of Taiwan’s economic dependence on the Mainland and growth in Cross-Straits travel may in time realize Beijing’s objectives without recourse to violent measures. As Sun Tzu state, “Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content.” This is the opposite of the policy of brinkmanship adopted by Russia in Crimea.

An additional claim is that China cares more about its international image and considers it a priority over appearing to contradict globally-agreed-upon settlements or courses of action, which is not the behavior of a global leader:

“Beijing usually takes a lowest-common-denominator approach, adopting the safest and least controversial position and waiting to see the positions of other governments before revealing its own.”

On the contrary, this highlights the Machiavellian nature of Chinese diplomacy. Reservation in divulging one's position before others is again not symptomatic of weakness, but rather shrewd negotiation, in which the advantage lies with the party that discloses the least and knows the most about its adversary. In the words of Sun Tzu, “Hence the enlightened ruler is heedful, and the good general full of caution. This is the way to keep a country at peace and an army intact.”

The contention that China modifies its position in international debate in order not to be seen as contradicting a consensus on matters of little consequence to its long-term strategy also does not imply impotence. If one country views an issue as being of importance but another does not, it would be illogical to incur the ill-will of the former unless a significant advantage may accrue to the latter. Flexibility in one’s negotiations is generally an asset that not even the most obstinate diplomat would deny. As Sun Tzu states, “According as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one’s plans.”

The nature of Chinese diplomacy

Chinese diplomacy is criticized in the article for being “minimalist and tactical, not normative or strategic.” Have all historical premier powers conducted diplomacy in an unchangeable, monolithic fashion? If so, does indisputable evidence exist that Chinese diplomacy is substantively different in manner?

In relation to the semantic arguments, is the divergence between strategy and tactics defined? A common problem in international relations is that the world is a chaotic system obviating a grand strategic approach to deal with spontaneous events.

Is Chinese diplomatic influence hindered because China is not a normative power? No definition of these norms or standards is given, and hence this conjecture remains an unproven matter of opinion. Finally most will agree that the adoption of a “minimalist approach” and careful resource conservation to avoid potential overstretch is a wise course of action. As Sun Tzu posited, “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”

Does China's world diplomacy lack substance?

China is charged with excessive stage-management of its diplomatic conventions in order to awe its domestic audience, detracting from its international gravitas. This argument is a non sequitur, that a nation seeks to impress at diplomatic meetings does not imply that the events lack substance. Most nations manage the minutiae of such engagements both for domestic and foreign consumption.

For this accusation to be admissible, it must be proved that Chinese diplomatic visits are quantitatively or qualitatively different from those of the United States or the British Empire in the nineteenth century, both recognized hegemonic powers in their eras. It must also be proven that Chinese showmanship is intended for domestic consumption and not to impress visiting dignitaries, and that theatrics and shrewd negotiation are irreconcilable.

An additional argument is that Chinese lack of power is exemplified by an excessive focus on trade in its diplomatic engagements with retinues of mostly corporate CEOs in search of investment and trade. In this regard, China is no different from any other major power. A primary motivating factor for the expansion of the Second British Empire was to secure trading rights. Similarly, after the Second World War, maintaining free and open markets to U.S. manufactures and trade was one of the key drivers of U.S. foreign policy.

Is China an irresponsible nation?

Shambaugh claims that despite Chinese participation in global governance issues, such as UN peacekeeping, anti-piracy operations, counterterrorism in Central Asia, overseas development assistance, nonproliferation of nuclear materials, public health, disaster relief and combating international crime, “China could and should do much more.” It “punches well below its weight” by not contributing proportionately to its size, wealth or potential influence and that international consternation at China's dereliction of its international duties considerably detracts from its international presence impeding the exercise of Chinese power.

Does a global consensus exist as to the definition of responsible global obligations, or is this a Western-consensus bias? If so, is there corroborating evidence that China eschews these responsibilities and are these issues relevant to China's national interest? Additionally, the statement that China “punches well below its weight” and that “China could and should do much more” abrogates the hypothesis that Chinese power is exaggerated.

There are a couple of cognitive biases evident in the description of China as an irresponsible nation. Firstly, naive realism: the belief that we see reality as it really is, objectively and without bias; that the facts are plain for all to see, that rational people will agree with us, and that those who don't are either uninformed, lazy, irrational or biased. And secondly, the false-consensus effect: the tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them. Because the United States and Europe agree on many issues does not imply that this consensus extends to Asia and the Global South. This is particularly the case in relation to the Iranian nuclear crisis.

It is generally received wisdom in the West that Iran should be prevented from acquiring nuclear-weapons capabilities, that all well-informed nations should support a non-nuclear Iran, and that any opinion to the contrary is irresponsible or a sign of debility. However, the West frequently overstates the extent to which the international community backs this position. India has long argued that the Non-Proliferation Treaty is fundamentally flawed; the club of nations legally permitted to possess nuclear arsenals is based on the acquisition of nuclear weapons before 1967, without a thorough ethical description as to why such international discrimination should exist. Exemplifying Chinese apathy in the Iranian nuclear crisis has elements therefore of all of the aforementioned cognitive biases.

Finally, it is maintained that China has not become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system, as exhorted by Robert Zoellick in 2005. What is a responsible stakeholder and who evaluates whether an individual, organization or nation is behaving responsibly? Who is the ultimate arbiter of the responsible conduct of nations? It is rather ironic that China is held to account by Robert Zoellick: a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, executive Vice President at Fannie Mae between 1993 and 1997, and the eleventh president of the World Bank who lectures China on becoming a responsible stakeholder in 2005 two years before the subprime mortgage and world financial crisis. Could this be considered the height of post–Cold War American hubris?

Constraints on China's global governance capabilities

In detailing the reasons why China will not surpass the United States as the most influential nation in the world, Shambaugh lists three potential “constraints” on China's global-governance capabilities:

1. Chinese skepticism of the premise of global governance and the wish to conserve resources through nonintervention in crises not in its direct national interest. Why would a Confucian, market-socialist nation actively support a system of global government based on the dollar as the world's reserve currency and global-governance bodies, such as the IMF, World Bank and the UN, in which Western nations possess disproportionate power compared with their populations or the sizes of their economies? Regarding nonintervention in crises not in its direct national interest, as Sun Tzu states, “If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are.”

2. Criticisms from the citizenry to allocating resources abroad when more development is required at home. Later in the essay, lack of freedom and democracy are raised as a severe limiting factors to Chinese influence and power around the world. If China's leadership is responsive to domestic opinion in foreign affairs this should be commended. This is inconsistent with the later description of China as a totalitarian state which is claimed seriously detracts from its international power. Is the case being made for dictatorial or oligarchic rule with this statement? Should the US government ignore the democratic sovereignty of its people in the exercise of foreign policy following a course of action with little popular support? That Chinese leaders are constrained by their citizen's wishes therefore is testament to their growing political emancipation and personal freedoms.

3. “China has a kind of ‘transactional’ approach to expending effort, especially when it involves money. This grows out of Chinese commercial culture but extends into many other realms of Chinese behavior. The Chinese want to know exactly what they will get back from a certain investment and when. Thus, the whole premise of philanthropy and contributing selflessly to common public goods is alien to the thinking of many Chinese.” Is there any evidence that the Chinese “‘transactional’ approach to expending effort, especially when it involves money” is in any way dissimilar from the free-market capitalist system? In what way does Chinese Confucian culture differ from free-market Anglo-Saxon Capitalism in its approach to charity and philanthropy? Moreover, is altruism synonymous with great-power status?


The contrarian positions supported by the article alleging that China's power in relation to foreign diplomacy is overemphasized lack substantiation and are influenced by logical inconsistencies and cognitive biases. The latter is best exemplified by the statement that “no other societies are taking their cultural cues from China.” Shambaugh suggests that China is completely absent as a global cultural power. It would be illuminating to look at Japan, Korea, South East Asia and various “Chinatowns” around the world and ask whether Chinese cultural influences are absent. In relation to Chinese attitudes to charity and philanthropy, this cultural bias is particularly unpleasant and is unhelpful in forming a scientific analysis of China's rise.

China is not isolated diplomatically. It is following its own unique strategy and limiting its engagement in matters of little national importance. The contention that China is an irresponsible nation, an irresolvable ethical and philosophical question, also has no pertinence to discussions of international power. Nor does Chinese advancement of its trade interests and stage-management of international events detract from its prestige. Some, including the Chinese leadership, view economic dominion as being more advantageous and less risky than force projection.

The common theme in the article’s discussion of Chinese diplomacy is that China does not behave like the United States; that if China were to surpass the United States, it would act similarly disregarding its traditional Confucian modesty. Apparent Chinese weakness is not a consequence of lack of power, but may be explained by Sun Tzu himself: “If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.”

Clark Edward Barrett holds a Ph.D. in Materials Science from the University of Cambridge and a Research degree in Nuclear Physics. He has lectured on Chinese economic and technology policy in London and Cambridge and has advised members of the British Parliament.