China may have the planet’s second largest economy. But the Chinese are not going to rule the world

There is a lot of money to be made writing books warning that we are all about to succumb to China’s thrall. The best seller in this genre is Martin Jacques’ “When China Rules the World.”

But China is nowhere near to ruling the world, has shown no signs of wanting to rule the world, and would not know what to do with the world if it did rule it (which it never will.) It is a shame that for pointing this out in his new book China Goes Global, David Shambaugh will likely earn only a fraction of Jacques’ royalties.

The sub-title that Shambaugh chose for his latest book, “The Partial Power,” encapsulates his argument. And his meticulous exploration of the multiple ways in which China does not live up to its current reputation brings a breath of fresh and cooling air to an overheated topic. It’s about time. Because as Joseph Nye has argued in an essay that Shambaugh quotes approvingly, “magnification of China, which creates fear in the United States and hubris in China, is the biggest danger we face.”

Shambaugh, a professor at George Washington University and one of America’s most respected China-watchers, certainly does not minimize the extent to which China has “gone global’ over the past 35 years. But he puts the country’s transformation in some useful perspective.

Yes, China is the second largest economy in the world, and will one day be the biggest. With the largest population on the planet this is not so extraordinary. But the US economy is still more than twice as big as China’s, and on a per capita basis America’s is 12 times bigger.

Yes, China has been pouring money into its armed forces, and has become the dominant military power in Asia. But its navy cannot fight a war, or even sustain a significant presence more than 300 miles from Chinese shores (and it would certainly lose any maritime engagement with the Japanese navy.) China does not have a single foreign military base. Nor does it have any military allies, besides North Korea.

Yes, Chinese companies have been sucking up oil, copper, iron ore, and other raw materials wherever they can find them to fuel China’s massive development drive. But Beijing buys more than 90 percent of its metals and minerals from foreign producers or on the spot markets. China controls very few resources itself.

If China cannot buy the world, nor beat the world in war, how else might it rule? By wielding influence through diplomacy and soft power, perhaps. Fat chance. China may have the diplomatic trappings of a great power, such as a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but nowhere in the world today has Beijing taken action to try to shape events, except by launching the Six Party Talks in a so far futile effort to de-nuclearize North Korea.

Instead, Shambaugh finds China to be “an international actor, but not an international diplomatic power,” and one that pursues a risk averse foreign policy “primarily driven by narrow national (economic) interests.” In no sense can China be said to be a diplomatic leader.

Nor is Beijing running very well in the soft power stakes, despite a government decision five years ago to pour billions of dollars into promoting China’s image worldwide through the media. (The government-run “China Daily” now publishes a US edition and state TV last year opened an African headquarters in Nairobi.)

The trouble is that people around the world may admire China’s growing prosperity, but few of them want to live there. Beijing’s repressive one-party political system does not offer a model that many citizens elsewhere would want to follow.

Nor do most people around the world think well of China’s global role. In the 2013 Country Ratings Poll, released in May by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, respondents in 21 countries were asked to rate nations on whether their influence in the world is mostly positive or mostly negative.

China’s positive rating fell eight points from a year earlier to 42 percent, its lowest level since polling began in 2005, while its negative rating jumped eight points to 39 percent. Those are not the kind of numbers that suggest the world is anxious to be ruled by China. Rather, as Shambaugh argues persuasively, “China has an increasingly broad ‘footprint’ across the globe, but it is not particularly deep.”

Of course, all this might change. As the author himself acknowledges, China’s development is a dynamic process and this book is a static snapshot. But there are probably as many reasons to expect China to falter on the world stage as there are to predict its hegemony.

Not least among those reasons are the welter of pressing problems at home – political, social, economic and environmental – which are what actually keep China’s leaders awake at night when some people imagine that they are dreaming of world domination. The rest of us can sleep easy.

– Peter Ford