The Illusion of Chinese Weakness

August 31, 2014 Topic: Diplomacy Region: China

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.”