Is China an Empire? By Toh Han Shih. (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2017). Pages 292. US$ 38 softcover.
IS CHINA AN EMPIRE? BY TOH HAN SHIH IS AN INTERESTING ANALYSIS of China’s emergence as an economic superpower. The book is well researched, analytical and thought-provoking. It offers important insights into why the author has selected the title, Is China an Empire? In his examination of the subject, after comparing China’s rise in the late 20th and the early 21st century to that of the Western powers, he concludes that whilst China (as also the United States) have a number of the attributes of an ‘Empire,’ it is not really so. It is, however, undoubtedly on the undeterred route to becoming an economic and military superpower and may well overtake the United States in the foreseeable future.
The author has covered the subject in nine chapters. In Chapter 1—”Imperialists?”—he draws comparisons between China and past Western Empires and concludes that China’s drive for resources all over the world is similar to that of the European Empires, and that her increasing assertiveness globally leads to others considering her to be an emerging ‘de facto Empire.’
In Chapter 2, “China’s Global Economic Expansion,” the author has examined the phenomenon by making comparisons to Britain’s economic rise and its creation of an unparalleled Empire. He elaborates that China has followed a trajectory similar to Britain and has given factual data to support the analysis – it has become the world’s biggest trading nation, and her economy is dependent on import of raw material and export of manufactures. He explains China’s rise of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a result of its global thrust, and states that China’s GDP will surpass that of the United States soon. China has followed Britain’s pattern of development of its textile industry, and it has also taken a series of other initiatives to build high-speed railways, generate direct foreign investment of capital, and launch mass-scale construction of infrastructure including roads, dams, and power plants. The author argues that the path China has taken a path similar to Britain’s to becoming an Empire. The only means that China has lacked is that of a powerful navy and military to protect its interests, whereas Britain and the United States had, and have, both. It is, however, working overtime to rectify the flaw.
In Chapter 3, the author reviews China’s activities in Africa, and in Chapter 4 he covers African perceptions of China. He initially surveys the Western world’s, and China’s, past relations with Africa—its colonisation and decolonisation—making the interesting point of the role the Chinese played in assisting the locals to throw off the Western yoke, particularly in Angola and Namibia. He then goes on to delve into China’s role after its reform, where, unlike the West, China’s attitude was one of helping these nations develop by building their infrastructure, in return for access to the African nations’ natural resources. China has by now invested more than US$ 40 billion and has over one million Chinese in Africa. It is also Africa’s biggest trading partner. The Chinese have been particularly active in Libya, Angola, Namibia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Sudan, Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, and South Africa. The author establishes very clearly that contrary to public perception, Africa in general appreciates Chinese efforts in the continent.
The author examines the Chinese cracking the U.S. Monroe Doctrine in Chapter 5 in reference to Cuba, the Caribbean, and countries of Latin America. Toh Han Shih first explains the Monroe Doctrine and U.S. relations with the Caribbean countries, he then covers recent Chinese entry into and investment projects in Cuba and Nicaragua, including construction of the Nicaraguan Canal. Thereafter he investigates the Chinese entry into Latin America, in particular Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Belize, Peru, and Ecuador in their quest for natural resources, and in return, grant of Chinese soft loans and investment for construction of infrastructure. China is now the second largest trading partner of the region and has flooded the continent with its manufactures and weaponry.
In Chapter 6, he scrutinises China’s relationship with Southeast Asia, and the balancing act being played by these countries between the United States and China. He explores China’s relations with Myanmar as its largest trading partner and investor, and the early Chinese attempts to unseat Indonesian President Sukarno and their adverse relations with President Suharto. Consequent to Chinese support to communist rebels in Southeast Asia, relations were initially strained with most of them, except Cambodia whom they befriended. He then explains relations with Singapore and Vietnam, and the maritime tensions over China’s territorial disputes with some of the Southeast Asian nations over the oil- and natural resource-rich South China Sea. Notwithstanding all these tensions, China remains the region’s largest trading partner, investor, infrastructure constructor, and soft loan provider, in return for natural resources and a market for its goods. China has also of late started wooing these nations in an attempt to improve relations.
The author, in Chapter 7 entitled “Lenin Revisited,” examines Lenin’s definition of capitalism and imperialism, and applies these conditions to the U.S. and China’s rise to superpower and near-superpower status, respectively. He concludes that both the United States and China match the criteria for being imperialist powers on most counts, and that major rivalry between them is progressively taking root particularly in the economic and financial domains.
In Chapters 8 and 9—“The Dragon and the Eagle,” and ”Anti-Imperialist Pseudo-Empires,” —the author studies the relations between these two nations. He highlights that today both China and the United States are each other’s largest trading partners: the United States is the largest importer of Chinese goods, and it is also the largest exporter to China. The United States is China’s largest debtor, with China having given it the largest loans and with its purchase of U.S. Treasury Bonds. China is also making massive investments in the United States, which frequently blames China for its economic woes. Notwithstanding all this, the economies of both nations are closely interlinked and because of this, irrespective of the rivalry between them, the possibility of their going to war with each other is limited, particularly since the United States is much stronger in military terms.
The author then explores their soft power and the question as to who holds the lead. He argues that although the United States leads, with China suffering from a trust deficit, a lot is to be learned from China’s poverty reduction programme, where they have drawn no less than 600 million poor people out of poverty. He concludes by hoping that the United States and China would mend their differences and join hands to resolve economic issues the world faces.
I personally have found this book a very interesting reading, though slightly biased in favour of China. I believe that readers would be educated by the views of the author as it is well researched with plenty of facts to support the author’s findings.
Lt.-Gen. J.R. Mukherjee, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retired), former General Officer Commanding 15 Corps in Kashmir, India, and Chief of Staff of Indian Army Eastern Command.