China’s Soft Power Problem

Tiffini M. Jones
World News /25 Mar 2016

China’s Soft Power Problem

The concept of power in international relations has become much broader and expansive when compared to its earlier formulations. Traditionally, a state’s power was evaluated through a quantification of its tangible resources, i.e. military might, economic efficiency, demographic make-up and the degree of technological advancement; things which are today just one part of the over-all power equation. The other part is constituted by the novel idea of “soft power” which, in contrast to hard power, is largely exerted by intangible objects such as ideas, values and cultures.

Soft power is now used as a measure of an actor’s real influence upon others whereas, the influence achieved through the possession and exercise of hard power is sidelined as mere coercion. In simple words, soft power is the ability to influence the behavior of others not through coercion but by attraction.

A state is said to have soft power when it can influence or shape the preferences of others not by forcing or threatening them, but by influencing them by virtue of its culture, political ideals and foreign policy values. Soft power exists when a state’s counterparts are persuaded to act/behave in accordance with its desires not out of fear but out of admiration and respect. So, the most important defining feature of soft power is the non-coercive nature of the influence that a state exercises on others.

Interestingly, though the idea of soft power emerged only near the end of last century, its constituents have long existed, even in the most primitive societies. All states, throughout history, had their respective cultures, ideas, political values and foreign policies. It therefore implies that the term soft power does not represent something that was completely non-existent in the past. Instead, this coinage, which recognizes and attributes a greater importance to these elements, represents more a strategic adaptation than the emergence of new phenomena.

As the Cold War ended, the US had achieved unprecedented levels of conventional power which raised concerns regarding the fate of the future of the international system and the role which the US would play.

It was therefore imperative for the US to find a way to address these concerns and justify its over-arching/superior status by reassuring other actors.

It was against this strategic environment that Joseph S. Nye, a leading academic from Harvard University, who later served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs during the Clinton Administration, coined the term ‘Soft Power.’ The title of the book, in which the term was first used in 1990, was self-explanatory as it read, Bound to lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. The US needed to dispel fears regarding its unparalleled destructive potential along with securing its leadership position. For that reason, the idea of soft power was a strategic necessity, as the US needed to emphasize and highlight the role it played through its attractive culture, universal values and exceptional foreign policy ideals in order to sway attention away from its unmatched military might which the world worried about.

In view of the above explanation, it is clear that the emergence of US soft power as a phenomenon was an ‘historical event’ rather than a deliberate attempt. However, the term ‘Soft Power’ was coined with full intent to suit US interests in the changing external context.

Later, as it was incorporated into Western discourse, it became an integral component of a nation’s over-all power and all states today have to evaluate their strength with reference to this frame of Comprehensive/Smart power. States have no option but to strive for soft power and to strategically adapt to the idea in the best possible ways. Consequently, soft power has become an important arena of inter-state competition with the US as the main reference point.

The US is the main reference in all debates related to soft power because by virtue of being the first to initiate or propose the idea, the US will always retain the initial advantage in competing with other latecomers to the field. Additionally, by being the pioneer, it will always remain entitled to evaluate, judge, label and rate other states for their performance in the field i.e. their limitations and achievements regarding soft power. This is exactly what can be seen happening in the case of Chinese soft power. Enhancing soft power has become one of the main foreign policy goals of the Chinese government and has become a priority in the country’s international interactions across the globe. Drawing the greatest attention to Chinese soft power are Western critics who claim that China lacks any real influence because what it claims to be its soft power is not ‘soft’ per se. The accuracy and validity of western claims against Chinese soft power is being analyzed here.

Arguing against the notion of a Definitional Mismatch

Most US-based and Western analysts claim that ‘China actually lacks any genuine soft power because what China exerts as soft power presents a strong ‘definitional mismatch’ with the original concept and its composition.’ The fundamental deviation occurs with regard to the inclusion and exclusion of economic resources. Nye’s definition excludes both military and economic resources while Chinese adaptation of the concept and practice of soft power is restrictive only regarding military power; everything but military force is utilized by the Chinese for the exercise of soft power. Not only is Chinese soft power inclusive of economics, it actually is the most fundamental, durable and influential feature of this power. For rating purposes, we can say that Chinese soft power largely rests on its economic power and it secondly places it’s strength on is foreign policy ideas and political values followed by its culture and civilization – these being the least developed aspects of Chinese soft power.

As per Joseph Nye, use of economic carrots and sticks for impacting others behavior counts as a coercive measure and therefore lies outside the scope of soft power. What Nye’s definition thus implies, both implicitly and explicitly, is that the US has completely cancelled the use of economic means in its exercise of soft power; assumptions which are hardly true.

Such criticisms which claim China lacks soft power by referring to definitional bounds can be easily addressed when a critical analysis of the growth of US soft power is done. American soft power, which is the reference point in this case, has derived its strength from tremendous and unmatched hard power that the US had, especially when referring to the build-up of the post WW-II international system.

The fact that a large number of countries fell into the US camp towards the end of cold war was not due to the US’s cultural appeal nor its ideas, rather it was offering successful economic carrots and sticks that determined the future spheres of US influence. It was the dollar diplomacy (Marshall Plan) where the US spent billions of dollars for the reconstruction of post-war Europe, which made the European nations see the US as a better patron than other less capable countries. Similarly it was not a rhetorical promotion of the ideas of non-proliferation which kept other European nations from pursuing their individual nuclear weapons programs. Instead, it was the positive security assurances and the acceptance under the US nuclear umbrella which addressed their security dilemmas, thus enabling them to forego the acquisition of nuclear weapons and comply with the US-originated norm of non-proliferation.

These facts show that soft power is closely inter-linked to hard power. States, being realist entities, will never owe appreciation to anyone/anything that does not contribute substantially to the growth of their power. For that reason, the initial path towards soft power always relies on a more conspicuous use of hard power. Once the base is set, then, in latter stages, soft power keeps growing and the use of hard power becomes less apparent or more tacit and subtle. In that sense China is following probably a path similar to that taken by the growth of US soft power. So, in this view, the definitional mismatch is non-existent or unclear at best as soft power does not and cannot have an independent existence. It always needs hard power at its base without which it loses its essence. Just today, if the magnitude of any other state’s hard power, be it Russia, Japan or China surpasses that of the US hard power, its soft power relative to the US will also witness a dramatic increase since a hard base always provides the anchoring ground for soft power.

Systemic Forces and the Expansion of Chinese Influence

Secondly, it is argued that Chinese soft power will keep growing due to the role played by systemic factors because it is these structural forces that have provided China with an opportunity to exert a greater influence in the first place. As long as the structural determinants remain unchanged, China’s world-wide influence will witness an upsurge provided it does not get overly aggressive or revisionist. It is the structure of the international system that provides the right opportunity for the expansion of soft power. The US has an advantage over others because it timely availed itself of such an opportunity given by the systemic/structural forces. Amid the post WW-II chaotic and unstable conditions, where most nations faced different kinds of deprivation, any state capable of providing the greatest amount of public goods to the greatest numbers would become dominant and would appeal to others. If any other nation had shown the ability for the provision of public goods, the US influence would not have been unopposed or unchallenged and its freedom of action would be limited. Similarly China’s soft power can be attributed to the dynamics of the international system.

As the legitimacy of the US’ unmatched hard power declined with the demise of the Soviet threat, various instances of unilateral use of force by the US further increased apprehensiveness about US policies. Also the notion of US invincibility has been considerably shattered due to the ways in which the US campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended.

Simultaneously, due to engagement in protracted unilateral wars, the US no longer is capable of being the sole provider of public goods. It has become interdependent with others to meet that goal, China being one of them. China, therefore, has the chance to enhance its non-coercive influence by providing actors with what they need. Even if economics lies outside the definition of soft power, China’s adaptation to the concept relies more on its economy than on its ideas and culture because this is what the actors need the most in the present and this is what China can help them with in a more efficient way. In the concept of soft power, ends matter more than means and therefore, exerting a non-coercive influence is far more important that the means employed to achieve that influence.

Prioritizing Ends over Means

Based on the above mentioned significance of ends over means, different states can choose different paths to the same end as long as coercion is not part of the formula. For China, economy has been a greater source of influence than anything else and so, it will remain China’s source of attracting others because of its greater demand and due to actors’ willingness to engage with China rather than being coerced into doing so, this does count as soft power. The appeal for China’s engagement will continue to grow for another reason as well and that is China’s foreign policy ideals and values.The US has engaged with the world on the basis of its liberal-democratic ideals, forcing states to adopt these values as a pre-requisite for engaging with the US. The results of this coercion have been mixed and the US has ended up providing public goods on a discriminatory basis, thus leading to sustained deprivation and reinforced resentment against the US led system in certain parts of the world. This is how systemic forces have created a favorable environment for China to enhance its soft power.

China has adapted to the concept of soft power not only by bringing the economic dimension into play, but also by maneuvering adeptly through directing this power to fill the gaps left by the US. China has specifically targeted those areas as possible avenues of gaining soft power which already had a strong realization of being left out by the US as a result of not complying with US political ideals. Major spheres of Chinese influence include Africa, Latin America and Central as well as South-West Asia. It is in these areas that China’s political values, development ideals and foreign policy have served as the main sources of attraction in addition to the economic carrots. These regions have a great appeal for the rules on which Beijing has shaped its foreign policy. They show a greater affinity towards China due to somewhat related political systems and similar developmental concerns.

The success of Chinese influence has relied for the most part on two things; the norm of non-interference and its issue-specific approach in relations with these developing countries. Types or forms of domestic political systems do not dictate China’s engagement preferences as long as the cooperation runs smoothly. Secondly, despite the great appeal that the Chinese Development Model has in the developing world, China has not sought to impose its model as a general solution to problems of different countries. China has adopted a country specific approach for dealing with different states. Such an approach may be labeled as escapist by some, but it will help increase its soft power as long as China keeps providing for the fundamental needs of the deprived states.

Conclusively, the debate over China’s soft power is vast and extensive and has many facets; just one of them has been addressed here, checking the validity of the claims which disregard Chinese soft power on the basis of its incongruence with the original definition of the concept. The inter-linked nature of soft and hard power, the role of systemic forces and China’s effective maneuvering of the existing realities have contributed to China’s greater influence, which is expected to increase in the near future. If the concept of soft power is fundamentally concerned with the “non-coercive” nature of a state’s influence, then China certainly possesses soft power as it has been successful in modifying the behavior of states without making them feel coerced or being threatened. The charm offensive is helping China get what it wants. Moreover, culture, ideas and foreign policy are not the ends in themselves but means towards the end. As long as force or the threat of the use of force (coercion) stays out of equation, the means employed to reach the end goal are of lesser importance. If China can reach its goal using different means, without harming anyone, the weakly formulated claims against the authenticity of its soft power might be left baseless and unnoticed while Chinese soft power will continue to increase.

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