“Advantage China: Agent of Change in an Era of Global Disruption” by Jeremy Garlick


One cannot help wonder whether the number of “China books” is a lagging or leading indicator of the country’s importance in world affairs. While some of these books communicate more about the author than China, Jeremy Garlick’s Advantage China: Agent of Change in an Era of Global Disruption is more realpolitik than politics, more about what works and what doesn’t than who’s right or wrong.


Instead of engaging in values-based polemic, I hope the data-driven analysis in this book will present readers with a critical perspective contrasting China and the West’s respective approaches to global development and international affairs. The intention is to show how China’s approach is distinct from the West’s, and how this approach gives the PRC certain advantages when trying to forge a route through the complex and turbulent times in which we live.


And at just about 150 pages, it’s refreshingly short and to the point.


Advantage China Agent of Change in an Era of Global Disruption, Jeremy Garlick (Bloomsbury, October 2023)
Advantage China: Agent of Change in an Era of Global Disruption, Jeremy Garlick (Bloomsbury, October 2023)

In brief, Garlick argues that China has its policy act together while the West doesn’t and that, as a result, China has the West on the hop, at least internationally. Garlick cuts through much of the chaff that pervades current commentary: while there is, for example, difference of opinion about how successful the Belt and Road really is, there can be little debate that it has changed the playing field in significant and unprecedented ways.

Garlick puts what he sees as the West’s current policy incoherence down to the usual suspects: hubris, complacency, policy swings resulting from democratic elections, and political fragmentation between the US and Europe (and within the EU). And he credits China’s success (although it might be better to call it relative success) to the opposite: that China’s political set-up allows it, in short, to engage in long-term planning and avoid many of the slings and arrows of public pressure.

These observations have been made before; Garlick makes them with emphasis. And while descriptively they seem indisputable, there’s also something a bit post hoc ergo propter hoc about them. Something changed around 2000 and it wasn’t the political systems. Garlick also seems to have written the book before China’s current economic malaise, or perhaps before it became clear. It might have been safer to attribute China’s success to this point not to its system but rather to a regression to the mean; that China, given its size, would naturally be economically successful unless something got in the way.

Nevertheless, it’s hardly arguable that the United States in particular does need to get its act together, domestically and internationally, but it needs to do so regardless of China; indeed, rather than being a motivator for good policy, the current focus on China can often seem to detract from clear thinking.


Although it’s clear who Garlick intends as the audience for Advantage China, it is less clear who will be swayed by it. It’s hard to imagine policy-makers, in those countries Garlick takes to task, making a policy U-turn; indeed, while Garlick may himself eschew a values-based polemic, “values” (whether from self-interest or belief) are nevertheless how countries distinguish themselves.

But Advantage China is marred by rhetoric. There’s a relatively long digression on how “Aristotelian logic and Cartesian dualism” impedes Western decision-making by “persuading us that two apparently contradictory situations cannot exist at the same time”, while “Marxist dialectics and the traditional Chinese concept of yin-yang” allow “relational links between contradictory states or entities which transcend their discrete properties.” This is a sort of inverse “othering” that would normally be given short-shrift. An application of Occam’s razor would indicate that the parlous nature of current US domestic politics is enough explanation. And the formal logic Garlick decries must have worked pretty well for the several centuries of Western expansion, at a time when politicians had actually read Aristotle and Descartes.

And even when making a potentially justifiable conclusion, Garlick can overdo the hyperbolic metaphor:


There is no getting away from the notion that before long – perhaps already – the West is going to be tagging along in the slipstream of the Chinese super-tanker as it picks a course through the waves of history; and, like the rest of the world, Westerners will be picking up scraps tossed from the deck like a pack of hungry gulls.


Rhetorical excesses aside, this isn’t even remotely true, at least not in the foreseeable future. Garlick may not be “engaging in values-based polemic”, but it can at times seem like a polemic nonetheless.


Those who are already on Garlick’s wavelength will appreciate the “data-driven” aspects of Advantage China; he’s just as clear about what isn’t working for China as what is. Of particular relevance are the ways


China is portraying itself – rather effectively for the most part – as the leader of the developing world. By investing in infrastructure and creating new markets in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, China has filled a gap left by Europe and ignored by the United States after decolonization. China has exploited the North-South global development divide to present itself as the propagator of an alternative order.


Again, (Western) commentators may critique the efficacy or motives, but it’s happening nonetheless. If one can look past the rhetoric, Garlick provides a roadmap, perhaps better as to how we got here than where we’re going.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.