‘Chinaphobia – A Wasted Opportunity’: Book Review

In 1978, Estonian-American editorial cartoonist, Edmund Siegfried Valtman, drew a huge dragon labelled China, with Mao Zedong’s head breathing flames on a bear marked with a sickle and hammer. At that time, the image portrayed the growing tensions between China and Russia and the Chinese rebuff of a Soviet offer to discuss border disputes and improve relations. Many would argue that the image was not an accurate representation of reality, considering the might of the Soviet Union even before it embroiled itself in a decade-long resource-draining mess in Afghanistan. But today, if one replaces Mao with Xi and the bear with Uncle Sam, not many would argue against the image conveying the changing realities.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, China has gathered both condemnation and admiration. While some blamed it for unleashing the ‘bio-weapon’ on the world, which has, till now, consumed more than six million lives worldwide, others appreciated its policies and success in controlling the spread and its international humanitarian actions. But when poked hard over the virus’s origins, the Chinese government and diplomats turned to ‘wolf-warriors’, aggressively rebuking any attempts to impose accountability on Beijing. But even before the pandemic, signs of the Chinese dragon getting ready to breathe fire were visible. During the Trump administration, China and the US engaged in a trade war which caused ripples felt across continents. But, before that, Beijing showed that it no longer looked to ‘hide its power and bide its time’ by actively altering the status quo in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

Today, the dragon’s ambitions encompass economic, military, technological, and political domains. As a result, China worries not only the likes of the US, the EU, Japan, and the UK—some of the great powers of the last century—but also India, Australia, and South Korea, the neighbouring middle powers. As China rises, all the countries mentioned above will look to manage increasing anxieties and questions in their societies, which seek to decrypt Chinese objectives and motivations. However, these questions also extend to Africa, Latin America, and the Arab world, where China has successfully increased its presence over the last decade.

Understanding these developments through a holistic perspective is indeed a monumental task. To fathom the power of the dragon’s fire, one needs to understand its motivations, strengths, vulnerabilities, and how others today perceive the dragon. This also needs comprehending the Chinese soft power, China’s longstanding role as the ‘factory of the world’, the internal ethnic movements that worry the government, and the transforming self-image in Chinese society. And this is what the father-son duo—Dr Mohammed Kheir Alwadi and Dr Karim Alwadi—has been able to remarkably achieve in their work ‘Chinaphobia – A Wasted Opportunity’.

Mohammed Kheir served as the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary for the Syrian Arab Republic in the People’s Republic of China between 2000-08. In 2009, he founded the China and Asia Research Centre. Infusing his experiences both as an ambassador and as an observer in China, he has written many books and articles on international affairs and Chinese-Arab relations. His son, Karim Alwadi, is a Beijing-based political scientist with a PhD in International Politics from China Foreign Affairs University. He is a Fellow of Ren Min University Middle East and African Studies Institute and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Global Governance and Development, Tong Ji University, Shanghai.

The book is conveniently divided into four chapters which take the reader through the reasons behind the growth of ChinaPhobia, the means of hostility towards China, its ambition for global leadership and several urgent questions arising from China’s rise. The father-son duo lay the premise for the book by drawing parallels to the Cold War era before diving deep into China’s fast and furious economic growth. The authors then underline the shifting centre of global geopolitical gravity to Asia while explaining the absence of any coherent strategy for countering the changing dynamics. The book then highlights China’s neighbourhood, covering the historical underpinnings and the ongoing developments along China’s land and maritime borders. Going beyond the statistics-laden approach, the duo discusses the political and societal perspectives on these issues and how it affects the region. In the next part, the book provides a comprehensive view of the Chinese soft power. While much literature exists on this theme, ChinaPhobia impressively focuses on the problems faced by Chinese soft power and why it feels insecure.

The authors then provide a realistic assessment of the Belt and Road Initiative, underlining its rationale, achievements, and failures and how it is being perceived worldwide, especially in the countries where the projects are ongoing. This part also looks at the ‘debt trap’ narrative and how it originated from Beijing’s lack of experience in foreign investment projects and its deeply-rooted inability to grasp constructive criticism. Finally, the authors provide an in-depth overview of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on China’s international standing and the repercussions of its wolf-warrior diplomacy.

In Chapter 2, the authors explore some of the most pertinent ways through which ChinaPhobia is instilled—beginning from the historical context, the duo analyses the arms race between the West and China, the recent trade wars, and the Uighur/Xinjiang and Tibet issues. In Chapter 3, the book decodes the basis of China’s ambitions for global leadership. It differentiates between Beijing’s hegemonic aspirations to dominate the world by altering the status quo and avenging its experiences during the century of humiliation, from its ambitions to change the global balance and be treated as an equal at the international high tables. The chapter further looks at the role of Yuan in China’s journey ahead and the role of intellectuals and research centres in countering ChinaPhobia.

Finally, in chapter 4, the authors deliberate upon several questions that emerge from ChinaPhobia. The duo presents a fair assessment of the winners and losers of this situation while looking at the possibilities for ChinaPhobia becoming an international phenomenon. The chapter also attempts to put forth some anecdotes for mitigating the rising ChinaPhobia for China and the world.

This work draws strength from decades of microscopic observations on Chinese political and societal levels. Throughout the book, the authors stress the dire need for self-introspection in Beijing and Washington and a return to a more realistic, pragmatic, and engaging approach. The book has comprehensively covered the Chinese inability to convey a clear and transparent objective and its repercussions that are now visible across the world. The duo opines that the international ‘honeymoon’ with China is almost over and that China’s rise is inevitable. At the same time, the book reflects upon China’s hesitation in taking on the responsibilities that come with the tag of  ‘global power’.          

While the book does not shy away from presenting several issues concerning China’s rise with clarity and critique, it does leave some questions unanswered. The duo has looked into the overall developments in the African, Latin America, Central Asia, and Southeast Asian regions and touched upon themes like India-China border disputes in brief. Though the authors have highlighted several examples of Beijing’s devious tactics in its political and economic engagements, the book does not highlight many of Beijing’s extremely wily strategies, which have come to light in recent years. In several opinions, more than China’s economic rise and changing societal perspective, this phenomenon has made others sceptical of China’s modus operandi.

Another absence in the book is a comparative analysis between the ChinaPhobia, and China’s Phobia. At several junctures, the duo have highlighted how Chinese society harbours a strong and perennial suspicion toward the rest of the world. The authors also present several examples showcasing the increasing arrogance and snobbishness in China’s young generations and its political and diplomatic circles. This invokes the question of ‘China’s Phobia’.   

This book is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to understand how the world perceives and reacts to China’s rise. It asks several tough questions while refraining from making any bold predictions. Looking at both sides of the coin, the authors have brought forth a thought-provoking account in a splendid manner.

Rating: 4.5/5

Divyanshu Jindal
Divyanshu Jindal
Divyanshu Jindal is a Researcher on Geopolitics & Tech at NatStrat, India.