Leading Sinologist argues that China is only a partial superpower but many acknowledge that it has had the greatest impact on the continent

China has perhaps had more impact on Africa in the past decade than any other region in the world.

Trade alone has risen from $18.54 billion in 2003 to more than $200 billion today alongside the stock of overseas direct investment increasing eightfold from just $1.6 billion in 2005 to $13.04 billion at the end of 2010, according to the China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

But does this major economic interaction in Africa or elsewhere give China real influence and also make it a global role model?

The leading American Sinologist David Shambaugh makes the case in his new book, China Goes Global: The Partial Power, that despite being the world’s second-largest economy, the country has a long way to go before it begins to shape the world in its own image.

The American academic argues that while the perception is of Chinese companies taking over businesses across the globe, such as state-owned bank ICBC’s $5.5 billion purchase of a 20 percent stake in Africa’s largest bank, Standard Bank – South Africa’s largest ever foreign direct investment – these deals are often exceptions.

China is, in fact, only the fifth-largest overseas direct investor in the world, behind even the Netherlands and a fifth of the size of that of the United States, he says.

Shambaugh further points out that while China may have 71 companies in the Fortune 500, only three of them are truly multinational, gaining more than 50 percent of their revenues from overseas.

China, according to the professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is also a “cautious diplomatic actor”, using diplomacy mainly as a tool to serve its own economic modernization and national security and not for any wider goals.

“China has a very long way to go before it becomes – if it ever becomes – a true global power. And it will never ‘rule the world’,” he argues. In Africa itself there can be no greater symbol of the relationship between China and Africa than the $124 million African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, which was not only built by Chinese workers but gifted to the people of Africa.

This has been criticized by some as an example of China exerting too much influence but the British academic Martin Jacques, author of the international bestseller When China Rules the World, insists China is something of a role model in Africa.

“China has gone through the development process itself and some areas of the country still have a per capita income similar to a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa so I think there is a greater understanding,” he says.

“The West on the other hand with its so-called Washington Consensus has tried to impose its own ideas on the continent, which has not proved successful at all and has been largely abandoned.”

The book, coming from one of the West’s leading Sinologists, is already fueling a debate about China’s current and future role in the world.

Some in China insist it has never been China’s intention to be a global superpower and that its sudden economic advancement has put it in a position of having to have a global role it never really sought in the first place.

Many believe Shambaugh also fails to give sufficient credit for the long and difficult journey China has taken since reform and opening-up began under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s.

One of his central arguments is that China is weak on “soft power”, the term devised by Harvard University’s Joseph Nye. And that unlike with the United States, emerging nations like those in Africa are unlikely to see it as a role model.

He says that China sees soft power as something that “can be bought with money or built with investment” with an estimated $7 to $10 billion spent per year on “overseas publicity work”, according to the author.

James B. Heimowitz, who was hired to work on China’s image during the Beijing Olympics when he was president and CEO for North Asia of public relations giant Hill & Knowlton, says that attempting to buy soft power is not something that should be derided because it is precisely what a lot of companies do to improve their brand image.

“My view is that those people who have been successful in building their influence or what is called ‘soft power’ have put both resources and money behind it,” he says.

“I think if China is putting money against this then it is certainly a step in the right direction. If they are a bit rough around the edges or not as nimble and sophisticated as others in applying that money then they will have to learn how to do it better but to imply it can’t be bought, I disagree.”

Kwaku Atuahene-Gima, executive director of the CEIBS (China-Europe International Business School) Africa Programme based in Accra, says Shambaugh may be right in not seeing China as a cultural role model but it is certainly now a business one.

“Most of our students have joined this program because they want to know why China has developed so fast and why they are so good at business,” he says.

“They want to know why Chinese companies can compete so successfully against Western companies, which seem to have all the advantages in terms of strength in both technology and marketing. These are the things they want to learn and apply them to their own businesses so we use a lot of Chinese case studies.”

Tony O. Otoa, executive director of Great Lakes Public Affairs, a think tank and research consultancy based in Kampala, says that China is even becoming cool among some young Africans.

“Ten years ago, a lot of Africans thought it was very cool to go and study abroad such as in the UK or the US. Now many more are going to Asia and places like China and also Malaysia. This is a very definite trend.

“I think parents are deliberately preparing their children for a situation in the future where dominance will come from the East and not the West.”

Shambaugh appears to take an almost polar opposite stance to that of Jacques, who argued in When China Rules the World that China could eventually define modernity in the 21st century and not the United States.

The British author believes Shambaugh’s book is more about where China is now than where it is heading.

“It is a still photo. As a snapshot of the present he has got a lot to say and he has some very reasonable arguments but he underplays the scale of China’s achievement.

“Where he really does underestimate China’s strength is in the whole economic field. China is an absolutely crucial player and has become an important source of demand in the world not just for commodities but as a major consumer market in its own right,” he says.

“He talks of the number of Chinese companies in the Fortune 500 but if you look at how many companies there used to be in the list it has been such a huge change.”

Paul M. Cheng, the Hong Kong politician and businessman, speaking from Hawaii, also believes Shambaugh has taken a snapshot and underestimates the global impact Chinese companies are likely to have over the next ten to 15 years.

The author of On Equal Terms: Redefining China’s Relationship with America and the West, another book that examined China’s role in the world, says China’s fast developing private equity market in Hong Kong and Shanghai will give Chinese companies huge financial firepower to make acquisitions around the world.

They will be then be able to acquire the innovation capability and global brands that Shambaugh says the China economy now lacks.

“It is a fast track way for Chinese companies to do this. You can criticize them for not being able to do it themselves but from a business point of view it really makes no difference,” he says.

One of the major questions is whether the Chinese government itself is more comfortable with Shambaugh’s “partial-power status” than that of a potential global superpower in what is seen as the more extreme Jacques case.

Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations and director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University and one of China’s foremost foreign policy experts, believes many in the Chinese leadership would prefer being seen as a partial power.

“I think much of this is fully com patible with Chinese leaders own self-assessment. China has had a dramatic rise but there are a lot of weak spots, particularly internationally and also culturally. I think generally speaking it is a correct assessment that China is a partial power,” he says.

Shi, who describes Shambaugh as his “good American friend” and with whom he has shared a number of conference platforms, says that China, in terms of foreign policy, still has work to do in building relations with the rest of the world, particularly with its neighbors.

“I think China has focused too much on defining its relations with the United States in the past three to five years and has not paid enough attention to diplomatic relations with its Asian neighbors,” he says.

“Within Chinese universities there is a lot of knowledge of the United States and also Japan but we need to focus much more on developing relations with countries like Myanmar, India, Mongolia, South Korea and also nations in Southeast Asia. This is where we should build our influence.”

Jacques, a former editor of Marxism Today and deputy editor of The Independent, says that historically real power and influence in the world has only come from economic power.

“I think Nye is a greatly over-estimated writer. If you want to be a political or military power on a regional or a global basis then you must have economic power but there is always a lag,” he says.

“Britain developed a huge empire and became a great naval power because it had the first industrial revolution. US economic development for more than a century after the American Civil War led to it becoming a superpower after 1945 when it ended its isolationism. The Soviet Union collapsed like a pack of cards after 1990 because it didn’t have economic power to underpin its military strength.”

He insists that a country’s position in the world has nothing to do with selling McDonald’s everywhere or having an international audience for films.

“India has Bollywood but it doesn’t make it a great power. It will be China’s economic strength that will lead to it having real power and influence in the world since that is what ultimately matters,” he says.

Whatever power or influence China has in the world, this might be temporarily moderated by the slowing down of the economy. In Africa, this has already had an economic impact with falls in commodity prices.

Odd Arne Westad, professor of international history at the London School of Economics and author of Restless Empire, China and the World since 1750, says the slowdown could mean that China avoids having such a heavy responsibility placed on it too soon.


“The slowing down of the general hyper growth that China has been going through over the past 30 years is probably a good thing because it forces the Chinese leadership to think in a much more hard and sober way about what China is going to do internationally.

“With great-power status comes greater responsibility but it will now happen more gradually and it is a reminder that China’s economic tree doesn’t grow into heaven.”

China already has had an impact and its investment has played a large part in the Africa’s growth over the past decade.

Mahmood Mamdani, professor and executive director at the Makerere Institute of University of Social Research in Kampala, believes its influence has been beneficial and challenges those in the West who say it is acting as a neocolonial power.

“If I was a Western politician or business person I would probably share that view because the West has had their monopoly here for the last century,” he says.

“The big immediate significance of China’s role here is that it has eroded this monopoly and from an African point of view, it can only be good.”

Westad, also director of the LSE IDEAS foreign policy research center, says there is no intention on the part of China to be influential in Africa and that it is a relationship driven by business.

“The Chinese business leaders I have spoken to believe there will be strong economic growth in Africa over the coming decades so to get involved for commercial reasons seems a very good idea.

“There isn’t some clear Chinese state African policy. It is really about commercial development.”

Mamdani, also Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University in New York, however, believes that if China is more than a partial power anywhere, it is in Africa.

“They (Africans) are becoming convinced it is not just a spark and that this has longevity. They are convinced that the horizon is changing and that the West will no longer have a monopoly here and will not even be as globally dominant as it is now,” he says.

– Andrew Moody