Thursday, November 18, 2004

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China extends its soft power

Jane Perlez writes in the New York Times about the contrast between China's expanding efforts to sell its culture in its near abroad with the ratcheting down of U.S. public diplomacy:

In pagoda-style buildings donated by the Chinese government to the university here, Long Seaxiong, 19, stays up nights to master the intricacies of Mandarin.

The sacrifice is worth it, he says, and the choice of studying Chinese was an easy one over perfecting his faltering English. China, not America, is the future, he insists, speaking for many of his generation in Asia.

"For a few years ahead, it will still be the United States as No. 1, but soon it will be China," Mr. Long, the son of a Thai businessman, confidently predicted as he showed off the stone, tiles and willow trees imported from China to decorate the courtyard at the Sirindhorn Chinese Language and Culture Center, which opened a year ago.

The center is part of China's expanding presence across Southeast Asia and the Pacific, where Beijing is making a big push to market itself and its language, similar to the way the United States promoted its culture and values during the cold war. It is not a hard sell, particularly to young Asians eager to cement cultural bonds as China deepens its economic and political interests in the region.

Put off from visiting the United States by the difficulty of gaining visas after 9/11, more and more Southeast Asians are traveling to China as students and tourists. Likewise, Chinese tourists, less fearful than Americans of the threat of being targets of terrorism, are becoming the dominant tourist group in the region, outnumbering Americans in places like Thailand and fast catching up to the ubiquitous Japanese.

As the new Chinese tourists from the rapidly expanding middle class travel, they carry with them an image of a vastly different and more inviting China than even just a few years ago, richer, more confident and more influential. "Among some countries, China fever seems to be replacing China fear," said Wang Gungwu, the director of the East Asian Institute at National University in Singapore.

Over all, China's stepped up endeavors in cultural suasion remain modest compared with those of the United States, and American popular culture, from Hollywood movies to MTV, is still vastly more exportable and accessible, all agree. The United States also holds the balance of raw military power in the region.

But the trend is clear, educators and diplomats here say: the Americans are losing influence.

As China ramps up its cultural and language presence, Washington is ratcheting down, ceding territory that was virtually all its own when China was trapped in its hard Communist shell.

"The Chinese are actively expanding their public diplomacy while we are cutting back or just holding our own," said Paul Blackburn, a former public affairs officer of the United States Information Service who served at four American embassies in Asia in the 1980's and 90's.

Read the whole thing -- Perlez backs up her assertion.

Does any of this matter? This depends whether you think that soft power actually matters. I think soft power doesn't exist without hard power, so really Chinese soft power matters only as it represents a manifestation of China's hard power.

posted by Dan on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM


What do you think China is buying with all of those $$$s, Dan?

posted by: praktike on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Oddly, Dan, I feel almost exactly the reverse. Hard power only matters as long as it's got soft power behind it. (What will win in Iraq, in the end, isn't the ability to kill enough Iraqis; it's the ability to get TV & beer -- er, "democracy" -- into enough homes; what will strengthen us against Europe is far more about the dollar than about the missles; and what won the cold war was, in the end, not much about guns.)

posted by: Some Other Dan on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

There's no question that soft power can exist without hard power. The ancient Greeks are often said to have "conqered" their conquerors, the Romans, by their culture. The same thing happened with the Mongols in China.

In modern times, Japan's economic system has been very influential, tho it's military power is minimal.

posted by: Carl on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

i beg to differ as well. without any soft power, nations won't achieve much. as mentioned, tanks and nuclear didn't won america the cold war, but it was McD, hollywood and coca cola.

posted by: tomatoinc on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

"tanks and nuclear didn't won america the cold war, but it was McD, hollywood and coca cola"

Maybe true, maybe not, but either way this isn't the "culture" America should export anymore. It's counterproductive in the 21st century.

posted by: Yo on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Let's keep things in prospective. At the end of the day its wealth and power that people respect. The US is still the world's only superpower and 25% of world GDP. China, despite its stellar 8-10% GDP growth, is only 4% of world GDP.

Arguably much of China's growth is unsustainable in the long-term - based on a mercantilist trade policies, labor and environmental abuses, free capital resulting from bank loans that will never be repaid and zero profit margins. It doesn't matter if all the world's microwaves are made in the Pearl River Delta if they aren't making any money on it.

The talk about China today reminds me of the views about Japan taking over the world in the early 80's. China is still an emerging market. Like all emerging markets it will have its ups and downs. We'll see how people's outlook on China changes during their next recession.

posted by: Brian from NYC on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Dan, we have nothing whatsoever to worry about from China. Just be patient. They have plenty of problems at home to contend with.

posted by: Dave Schuler on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Soft power definately matters, but I wonder how many Southeast Asians want to buy into a fascist/capitalistic system anyway. Maybe the elites, but the rest? In the end, chinese economic culture may have a great deal of power, because in many ways it is becoming more like American economic culture. I doubt however, that many SeAs are anxious to bring the fascism with the economics too though.

posted by: Joel B. on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

"The talk about China today reminds me of the views about Japan taking over the world in the early 80's. China is still an emerging market. Like all emerging markets it will have its ups and downs. We'll see how people's outlook on China changes during their next recession."

But whereas Japan's population was less than half of ours, China's is more than 4x as large. And while Japan's economic growth was heavily dependent on exports, China is growing from internal demand as much as anything else.

That said, I think your comments about the socioeconomic challenges faced by China have some truth to them. How China handles the inevitable recession that follows a capital-driven boom such as the current one will go a long way towards determining whether the country will eventually become a rival superpower to the US.

posted by: Eric on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

"Soft power definately matters, but I wonder how many Southeast Asians want to buy into a fascist/capitalistic system anyway. Maybe the elites, but the rest?"

Well, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Malaysia all had "fascist/capitalist" systems until recently. There's no reason why China can't make a similar transition to democracy as its economy develops. The only risks I see are a popular revolt caused during an economic downturn, or the country being hijacked by ultra-nationalist elements, similar to Imperial Japan.

posted by: Eric on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Well, don't worry about China being hijacked by ultra-nationalists -- they are already are controlled by them.

posted by: Klug on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Those are pretty big risks, Eric. There is nothing inevitable about a Chinese transition to a political system -- representative democracy -- that China has never known before and that directly contradicts the Chinese tradition of centralizing power. As well, rising Chinese influence in the region will likely play its part in determining how long the young democracies in Asia last.

American public diplomacy has been on a downward slurge for years now. Two related factors account for this, one of them obviously being the disappearance of Cold War incentives to offer a Free World alternative to Communism. The other is the progressive enfeeblement of the State Department. Foreign aid has never been popular in Congress, and promotion of American culture has become less popular as the number of domestic disagreements over cultural issues has increased. There has also been little leadership from the executive branch as to the objectives public diplomacy is supposed to aim for.

Actually the shortcomings of our public diplomacy are most glaring right now in the Muslim countries, not in Asia. Plenty of people in Asia still regard China -- with good reason -- as a potential threat; we would have some advantages in a contest for influence with China even if we did no public diplomacy at all. In the Muslim world the most vicious and pervasive anti-American propaganda gets only the most feeble response from our government, and only gets that because after 9/11 and the Iraq war American relations with the Muslim countries have been in such a chronic state of crisis.

It ought to be obvious that in the long run East Asia matters more to us that the Middle East. It would be most unwise, at a time when our regional economic position relative to China is deteriorating and our military power is heavily committed elsewhere, to neglect opportunities to promote American values using the methods that worked quite effectively during the Cold War. But for us to be able to do this the Department of State will need a renewed commitment to public diplomacy; it will need more people and more money. I don't mean to make a polemical point here -- in fact the State Department's capacity to conduct effective public diplomacy took bigger hits under Bill Clinton than it has under George Bush -- but I do wonder how likely it is that the current administration will see this as a problem. Right now it seems more concerned with "changing the culture" at State to eliminate news stories embarrassing to the White House than about anything else.

posted by: Zathras on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

I would take the article more seriously if the headline hadn't mentioned South Asia. In fact, the entire article deals with SouthEast Asia. Did the reporter just blow it or did her editor stick in an incorrect headline ?

Incidentally, it strikes me that though Japan's economic power may be stagnating, its soft power is growing. Japanese culture is cool now -- even in the US, we have Iron Chef and anime/manga.

posted by: erg on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

"The talk about China today reminds me of the views about Japan taking over the world in the early 80's.

Exactly. How soon does Michael Crichton come out with the "China will take over the world" novel/Sean Connery movie?

I would suggest that Dan travel to Shanghai to see how backwards his view is. Our soft power is all over Shanghai - from Starbucks & McDonalds to KPMG & PwC. America is taking over China; we don't have to worry about China taking over anywhere else.

posted by: Al on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

KPMG was formed by the merger of Dutch, UK, US and German audit firms, and PwC was formed by the merger of two UK firms. The global operations of neither firm are run out of the US.

posted by: john b on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Some other Dan:

what will strengthen us against Europe is far more about the dollar than about the missles; and what won the cold war was, in the end, not much about guns.)
Dude, what do you mean by that? The American and European economies are rapidly merging with each other. If square off against each other everybody will lose.
posted by: Ralf Goergens on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Actually, john b, the CEO of PwC is based in NYC. But no matter, since it is Western (if not US-based) auditors invading China, not Chinese auditors invading the West. Which is the whole point about "soft power" I was making anyway.

posted by: Al on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Until and unless China becomes a democracy, it
will never rival the USA. Or Europe for that

Command Economies DO NOT WORK! At some point
those commanded ["slaves"?] will want a huge
piece of the action or will simply stop working.

The "masters" can't shoot everyone now,
can they? And shooting just a "select few" to
prove a point gets the "masses" upset.

posted by: pragmatist on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Chinese "soft power" is slowly creating a wedge between the United States and its traditional Southeast Asian allies. For example, after the Philippines withdrew from Iraq, Filipino Senator Joker Arroyo very publicly that the Philippines should begin looking away from the United States and more towards China.

By making Southeast Asia more simpatico through things like the forthcoming China-ASEAN free trade area and other multilateral economic and even security agreements, Beijing is gaining political capital that it could use in times of crisis.

As an example, what if Taiwan should declare independence from China during the 2008 summer Olympics? Beijing would not tolerate this and Chinese soft power's capital gains in Southeast Asia could come in quite handy if Beijing should be forced to use military force to rein in Taiwan.

In terms of Chinese "hard power," don't forget that the Chinese military, guided by the strategic concept of sha shou jian (very roughly translated as the use of unforeseen asymmetric advantages to exploit enemy vulnerability), is building a Navy with submarine and maritime anti-ship missile platforms to counter carrier-based battle groups like those of the US Navy's Seventh Fleet; a slimmer, more professional army to conduct amphibious assaults and PGM platforms for coastal/littoral defense; and in the long term, a decent air force. All of this is meant to provide a credible threat of force if, in the future, negotiations and diplomacy should fail to resolve satisfactorily China's sovereignty issues over Taiwan and the South China Sea.

In sum, in the short- to medium-term, China does not seek global (hard) power projection (a la the United States), but rather regional power projection. If China has to project hard power in a crunch, soft power will probably help it diplomatically legitmize such the use of hard power in a crisis.

posted by: RZ on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

It might, RZ, if China uses hard power and wins quickly. Otherwise it will incur a substantial penalty from world financial markets for breaching the peace, thereby increasing the risks of doing business in the region. And of course military action against Taiwan, even if successful, would be a powerful reminder to the many Southeast Asian countries with ethnic Chinese minorities that what China did once they could do again.

I'm not entirely comfortable with couching this discussion in terms of "soft" versus "hard" power. Joseph Nye, whose book popularized the distinction, wrote the whole thing without mentioning religion once, though American missionaries have done as much to spread American values as any group in our history; this leads me to suspect that he was just searching for an academically respectable way to criticize the current administration for overemphasizing the use of military force in the Middle East. My own view is that many of the things commonly labeled as "soft power," including the prevalence of American brand names and fashions, are things to be aware of but not counted upon to advance American interests. If the Chinese government is seeking to buy influence at our expense I am disinclined to count on McDonalds and Disney to counter that effort.

posted by: Zathras on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]


At its peak I don't know what Japan's exports to GDP was (its 10% at this point) but for China right now exports are 30% of GDP and the current trade imbalance between China and the US is twice the size of the Japan's. That sounds pretty export driven to me.

posted by: Brian from NYC on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Doesn't "soft power" ultimately boil down to being a object of desire? We have "soft power" to the extent that people want to (a) live here or (b) live like we do.

I agree that "hard power" is worth little without this, and the ultimate economic failure of the Soviet Union may lie simply in its failure to be desirable outside the sphere of its "hard power."

The key point of the NYT article is the rise of intra-Asian tourism to and from China. This is a prerequisite to becoming an object of desire. Even tourism outward from a country can help, if it shapes a positive image of that country through the medium of cultural exchange.

The critique of Bush, then, is that he is leading us along the Soviet Union's path: a state increasingly dependent on hard power for its eminence, but losing its soft power through the attitudes of cultural isolationism and belligerence that were so central to the Bush '04 campaign.


Btw, if soft power comes down to desire, then maybe you econ majors should have paid more attention in your token class on the 19th century novel ;-)

posted by: Jarrett on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Soft power matters, particularly for small countries; Think of Ireland, it can have an influence far beyond that of, say, Denmark with a similar population and GDP. This is due to the cultural influence of Ireland though most particularly in the English speaking world. As an Irishman who has travelled somewhat I am alway astonished by how much people know about Ireland.

posted by: Tadhg on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

"Soft power" isn't power without "hard power" behind it. Might a country or culture with good ideas and cultural norms, but with little "hard power," influence other countries? Of course, but this isn't power. Superior culture did not protect ancient Greece and Rome from falling.

The successful exercise of power is getting others to do what you want them to do. Ultimately, you better be strong to make this happen.

If you doubt the importance of hard power, ask the Chinese government how important it is. They seem quite wedded to the idea of military power.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Al - fair enough, but I thought you thought Europe and the US no longer had any significant interests in common, and that we should stop pretending to be allies...

posted by: john b on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

john b - well, certainly the US and Europe are growing somewhat apart. But as between Europe and Chinese power, I'll choose Europe.

The subject of the post, however, is the degree to which we should be worried about Chinese soft power. And my point is that we really need to worry about it quite little about expanding Chinese soft power. Our soft power and Europe's soft power is influencing China to a much greater degree than China is using its soft power to influence other countries.

posted by: Al on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Andrew writes:

The successful exercise of power is getting others to do what you want them to do.

... but is implying that to do this, you need "hard power."

Not at all. The best way to get others to do what you want them to do is for it to be in their perceived self-interest. When I say that soft power is the same as being desirable/desired, I mean that others will naturally bend in your direction to the extent that you have soft power, even if you don't have a lot of guns. By definition, people WANT to follow/serve/accommodate soft power.

Soft power, for example, is what religious authorities wield, but it's also the power that Hollywood wields in disseminating a worldwide impression of the USA as a great place to live.

Obviously, a total knockout shooting war goes to the hard-power winner, but on the global scale, that's no longer an option (except in scenarios where life will end so quickly that there's no point in planning for it.)

posted by: Jarrett on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

"Perceived self interest"? My self-interest at one time may be, simply, whatever preserves my life; at a later time, it may be whatever allows me to improve my life as a result of my own abilities; and at still another time, it may be whatever enriches me at the expense of my neighbors.

"Others will naturally bend in your direction to the extent that you have soft power"? Ah, so when others bend in your direction you have soft power, and you have soft power when others bend in your direction. And on and on, in circles we go.

The point is: There's something to social contract theory. The war of all-against-all ends when the rule of law is established. The rule of law has not (alas) been established in the international arena. So it always comes back to hard power, which arbitrates between "perceived self interests" and breaks the circular soft-power argument.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

If that's the definition of soft power, it's wrong. Or at least terribly sloppy.

Hollywood does convey the image of America as a great place to live. It also conveys the impression that American women have no morals and that most American cities are nearly as dangerous as Baghdad. The message sent can be pretty ambiguous (depending in part on which films you watch); calling it "soft power," which implies it automatically and always tends to promote American interests, is profoundly misleading.

The influence of one national culture on others is an enduring theme of history, but this business about "soft power" is just another academic fad.

posted by: Zathras on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

I agree with Zathras that soft power as a concept has a lot of flaws and is probably something of a fad, but the larger point is that China is winning politically against us in the region, and this is a contest we should win easily. Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria made this same point last year.

If we want political support for our policies this matters.

posted by: Carl on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Brian, that's true. But China's imports are now even higher. Earlier this year, the country went from running a trade surplus to a trade deficit. And if the Yuan is revalued or floated, this trend will probably accelerate. Japan never came close to running a trade deficit during its boom years. Much of the output from China's newly-built factories is being used to service demand for Chinese consumers, which provides something of a buffer in the event that export growth stalls.

posted by: Eric on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

British universities are full of Chinese students. We're definitely picking up on those China vibes over here.

posted by: Claire on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Call it what you like, but there's no question that US power in the late 20c lay not just our arsenal, but in the fact that many people worldwide were seeing our culture, for better or worse, as an object of interest, fascination, and desire. And yes, we displayed the worst along with the best, but people still ate it up and millions wanted to come here.

Surely too, the final unsustainability of the USSR lay partly in the fact that images of Russia were just not as appealing -- though the arms race certainly helped to push the USSR over the edge and achieve a quick ending rather than a protracted violent one.

Call it what you like, but being an object of desire is a kind of power, it's not related to having guns, and it's not even the same as economic power, though it's related. And in a world where the US pretends to be promoting democracy, this soft power -- which is lodged in the opinions of citizens worldwide -- is going to matter more, not less.

I mentioned Hollywood as an institution that maintains and extends American soft power. The content of our cultural transmissions is beside the point. In fact, the negative reactions to US cultural influence are a soft-power blowback, because it feeds not just Al Qaeda but also the soft-power efforts of competing cultural influeces, including religious fundamentalisms and the secular-social-democratic tradition of western Europe, among many others.

On this soft-power level, the "clash of civilizations" continues, and it's at least as important as who has the guns, because short of a nuclear exchange, guns don't make our "soft power" competitors go away. In fact, to the extent that American belligerence makes more enemies, our soft-power deficit increases. That's the core of why -- as some of us argue -- the Iraq invasion makes us less secure in the long run.

posted by: Jarrett on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

There's an interesting article in the current Economist about China and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. They're worried about China (apparently from a "hard power" perspective), even as an oil pipeline from the Caspian to China is being planned.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Re: China's hard power...

Where does China turn when it shops for military weapons? In a word, Russia. According to the Russian Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), China constitutes the largest single importer of post-Soviet Russian arms and military equipment, with purchases ranging between 30% and 50% of Russia's entire annual deliveries.
Without those arms exports to China, Russia would lack the funds to modernize its own military. In fact, in the past Russia has prohibited the export of certain of its military aircraft, or production licenses, to China only to revoke the ban later on.
Israel has also been a long-standing supplier of advanced military technologies to China. According to the findings of a past US congressional committee chaired by Representative Christopher Cox (Republican-California), Israel has "offered significant technology cooperation to the People's Republic of China, especially in aircraft and missile development", including helping China build its current F-10 fighter jet. The Chinese F-10 is virtually identical to the discontinued Israeli Lavi fighter, an aircraft designed using $1.5 billion in US aid. The Lavi program, funded by the US and based largely on the F-16, was intended to provide Israel with its first domestically built fighter jet.
Israel also transferred to China its STAR-1 cruise missile technology that incorporates US stealth technology and is a version of Israel's Delilah-2 missile, which contains US parts and technology.

...which may explain why Condi and the State Dept are trying to woo India to their side, but the lure of the dark side^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H China is strong...

posted by: Gerry on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

No soft power, no hard power. Can't afford it. Can you leverage hard power for more soft power? Yeah. Didn't mean that you didn't have to have soft power to get the hard power in the first place. All hardpower states like North Korea are very ineffective. South Korea can afford a much better military any day of the week. The only thing that keeps it from getting nukes is not hard power but soft power.

Too often people think of soft power as PR value. However as far back as Sun Tzu military strategists noted the absolute need for economic bases to support hard power. And Machiavelli goes on at length about how soft power is crucial in determining both military victory in foreign states and maintaining power in one's own state. And Thucydides gives example after example where it was soft power - Spartan culture at Thermopolyae, etc. - in the form of culture, economic strength, intelligence, etc. determined the basis of success and failure in the Peloponesian War.

And Mao's whole little diatribe about how the guerilla must swim through the populace like a fish in the ocean was about how soft power was what made guerilla insurgencies successful or not since they were clearly outclassed in hard power.

Hmmm ... if you continue to regard soft power as a kind of PR value to others, then of course hard power looks better. Pentagon trumps State, no question about that. If you ask what intrinsic value capital markets, McD's, etc. have to you, then suddenly you realize that without a strong economy and good education system and volunteer military you couldn't afford a hi-tech professional army.

I would argue soft power is far more important, though hard power can be indespensible - the last argument of kings and all.

posted by: oldman on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

Having spent my last 3 years in China, I have come to the conclusion that this country, while improving dramatically, will not be a great power along the lines of the US or Europe unless it makes some very fundimental changes to the way it conducts its business and social affairs.

The good news is that any of these changes (more transparency from government and business, accountability and trust) will make it very difficult for China to be a threat. Chinese people are loath to admit it, but they want their country to develop in the mold of America. It's not that they want to translate the constitution, but they flock to and reward institions that are run on western-style terms and it is starting to slowly make its way accross the larger society. You hear rumblings about how it's silly for the government to parade its monetary support for Tibet when there are so many poor Chinese who need it as well. That attitude doesn't lend itself to supporting imperialistic land or trade wars.

As for soft culture, if that's defined as foreign countries adopting aspects of Chinese culture or changing to make Chinese tourists spend money at their hotels, of course that's going to happen. The Chinese culture has much that is very attractive and as the country gets richer and puts more money behind its culture, other counties will learn about these things and want them for themselves. I don't think anybody will be worse off with a few more massages or cups of good tea. Chinese music and TV on the other hand would be enough to encourage you to wish China had never opened up.

posted by: karl on 11.18.04 at 01:22 AM [permalink]

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