Recently the Democracy Paradox featured three episodes about the Global Ascendance of China on its podcast. David Shambaugh’s China Goes Global offers an early examination of this topic. So much has happened since its publication in 2013, but it remains a highly influential work to the study of China. The discussion below represent the thoughts and reflections of Justin Kempf on this important book.
The Global Ascendance of China
The global ascendance of China represents a challenge unlike any the West has encountered before. There has always been a divide between the occident and the orient, but the differences between the United States and China can feel like a chasm. There is no nation who represents the occident more than the United States. Americans are the quintessential Westerners who have internalized its value system and impose it upon others without remorse. China is the epitome of the Orient. Throughout its history, it believed it was the center of all civilization. Its culture was defined as the culture. Its values are often considered Asian values.
The differences are stark, but this is not America’s first global rivalry. The Soviet Union was the last great global rivalry. It too was half a world away. Its political and economic system were distinct challenges to the liberal democratic order. Yet Russia was never completely detached from the West. Its borders stretch deep into Asia, but its traditions are tied closer to Europe. China, on the other hand, is a purely Asian nation. Its traditions have no foundations in the West. Still, its political system is derived from Western political thought. Like the Soviet Union, China claims a political tradition based in Marxism/Leninism.
Nonetheless, China represents a fundamentally different challenge than the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union offered an alternative to the liberal global order. China has become a member of these organizations. The Soviet Union offered an external challenge to Western institutions. China represents a challenge from within those same institutions. The fear is not of displacement. Rather some scholars fear China will reshape those same institutions to reflect its values and redesign them to suit its purposes.
An Unusual Challenge
Indeed, China represents an unusual challenge for the United States. The Soviet Union consistently punched above its weight in global influence. It took a nation largely behind the rest of the West and transformed it into a peer. David Shambaugh emphasizes China punches below its weight. It avoids opportunities to make global commitments commensurate with its strength. It has been a power that has bided its time. But too often it looks for opportunities for easy wins and neglects areas where significant investment or influence are necessary for the world’s stability.
The irony is China often resembles the United States in its approach to global affairs. Shambaugh emphasizes the multiple global identities of China. It is an established power who continues to rise, a massive economy who continues to develop, and a communist nation who has embraced markets. My conversation with Xiaoyu Pu emphasized how China signals its different aspects to different audiences. Its multiple identities lead to conflicting messages and contradictions in policy. Nonetheless, its global identities are reminiscent of the rise of the United States in world affairs. Indeed, the United States remains an ambivalent nation who rises to serve as the world’s police officer. There remain many contradictions in American foreign policy to this day.
It took two world wars for the United States to accept global hegemony and it remains a reluctant power. Isolationist tendencies exist on the political right and left in American foreign policy circles. Many scholars have pointed out the similarities in the foreign policies of Barak Obama and Donald Trump in substance, although there are significant differences in tone. Both leaders wanted the United States to pull back from its role in many conflicts around the globe and both have been reluctant to insert American power into new conflicts as they arise.
China has a claim to the Confucian tradition. Eastern philosophy emphasizes different values and priorities than the West. And yet, Chinese culture has many similarities to the United States. The United States stands apart from the rest of the West. It has long distanced itself from Europe. In some ways it has become a caricature of the West for its hyper sense of individualism and emphasis on individual rights, but it has also remained aloof from the secularism of Europe. It has transformed the most radical aspects of the West into political traditions to establish a new form of conservatism.
China is also a nation apart from its neighbors. Despite its claims that Confucian values are incompatible with liberal democracy, the rest of East Asia has demonstrated its compatibility. Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, and Taiwan are all thriving democracies. North Korea is the only other holdout in East Asian. Even Southeast Asia has embraced a form of competitive authoritarianism where democracy has failed to consolidate. China does not hold onto its political system through a sense of collectivism, but a stubborn sense of individuality. Indeed, its foreign policy emphasizes the rights of state sovereignty to pursue their own paths. This is largely a justification for authoritarian governance in a liberal world order, nonetheless it emphasizes individualism in state affairs.
The Chinese people have demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit, not just in their own country, but also among their diaspora in other nations. China has had no problems in the development of independent business. On the contrary, the challenge has been to adapt them to global norms so they can become truly multinational. David Shambaugh emphasized how few global brands have emerged out of China. Today there are quite a few more recognizable corporate names from China. Yet brand recognition remains limited for an economy of its size. The challenge for Chinese companies is not their lack of individuality, but their failure to recruit global talent into their organizations.
Similarities to the United States
China has more similarities in its foreign policy than the United States would like to admit. Its ambivalence to embrace global responsibilities reflects similar isolationist attitudes throughout American history. Its transactional approach to international institutions reflects a common impulse a large part of the American electorate. Indeed, Donald Trump’s view of the world is criticized for its transactional approach. The deep sense of nationalism used to unite China toward global ambitions is consistent with America’s approach to garner public support for its own foreign policy.
China may represent a greater challenge to the United States because of its similarities rather than its differences. Indeed, the parallels between China and the United States do not offer reassurance. Many of its commonalities reflect the darkest tendencies of the American tradition. Asian values promise a commitment to cooperation over competition. But does China reflect this tradition? Its political system is based on brute force and compulsion.
Americans imagine individualism is synonymous with freedom, but there is an authoritarian tradition among those who advocate for its most radical form. Friedrich Nietzsche offers the most radical approach to individuality, yet he also opposed liberalism and democracy because it led to a herd mentality. Donald Trump, in many ways, reflects the most radical tradition of American individualism. And yet, he also symbolizes the seductive lure of authoritarianism. Democracy is impossible without some sense of collective identity. Elections emphasize political competition, but democratic governance depends on political cooperation.
East Asian Democracy
The great challenge for democracy is not external. It does not come from China or Russia. It has come to fruition from within the Western tradition. The competitive spirit of the West has corrupted its sense of democracy. It emphasizes elections more than governance. It values conflict over compromise. The promise of Asian values has been an injection of the cooperative spirit back into liberal democracy. The comparative success of Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan to manage the pandemic has shown there is much to learn from Asia. Yet, it remains unclear whether China has the capacity to emulate these virtues. China is both too Asian and not Asian enough in the same way the United States is too Western and not Western enough at times.
The Global Ascendance of China… or A Partial Power
China remains a partial power. But the United States is also a partial hegemon. The liberal order the United States has established has reinforced its global influence while it has also distributed power. The layers of global institutions provide guard rails and obstacles to American influence. There are channels like the United Nations where small nations can consolidate their limited power to oppose the United States. These are not quirks of the system. They are features that the United States wanted incorporated into its design.
The United States and China represent the most extreme forms of the occident and orient. There are obvious differences between them, but there are also similarities due to the radical application of their cultures. And yet, it is the darkest aspects of American identity which are so often reflected in China. They share vices rather than virtues with one another. But the great hope is China will find ways to contribute new virtues to the global community. The United States has found ways to bring greater value to the world than the damage it creates. It is uncertain whether China can do the same.