Monday, June 25, 2007

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This week I'll be thinking about China

I'll be an occasional contributor to this week's book club at TPM Cafe. The book du semaine is Josh Kurlantzick's Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World.

The flavor of Josh's book can be captured in his tablesetting post -- particularly his first two paragraphs:

While the US has been focused on Iraq, it has ignored a subtle – but enormous – change in the world. Since only the early 2000s, and under the US radar, China has changed from a country that barely interacted with the world into a growing foreign power. In fact, China savvily has amassed significant “soft power” around the world through aid, formal diplomacy, public diplomacy, investment, and other tools. Here in Washington, where China’s image is not great, it’s hard for us to understand how popular China has become in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Even China’s model of development, of state-ordered economic liberalization and minimal political liberalization, has significant appeal. In particular, it has appeal to elites in nations in the region – and in other places like Africa – alienated by the Washington Consensus and American intervention around the world.

No one amassed chits with other nations for no reason. Now, China can begin to use its soft power. It will be able to utilize its popularity in regions where the US and China have potentially competing interests in resources. China is already trying to draw upon its charm to push back against American power in Asia. In the future, China could prod countries like the Philippines or Thailand, which are already using China as a hedge, to downgrade their close relations with the United States. Beijing continues to support authoritarian regimes, stemming from its vow of noninterference. This, too, weakens US diplomacy. Though their interests sometimes overlap, fundamentally the United States and China still do not agree on how diplomacy and international affairs should be conducted. And though Beijing can be persuaded to support better governance in places, like Burma, with limited resources and such horrendous regimes that they breed instability in China, it is much harder to persuade China to act against terrible governments with oil, like Sudan, or whose policies have no direct impact on China itself, like Zimbabwe. In the future, China’s ability to support its friends will only grow stronger as China builds its global soft power.

I'll be commenting on this a bit later, but for now I'll be curious to hear from readers. Is Chinese soft power a real source of concern?

Before you answer, be sure to check out Danna Harman's story in the Christian Science Monitor about how the Sudanese perceive China after a few years of foreign direct investment. Let's just say I think one needs to parse out Chinese economic power from Chinese soft power.

posted by Dan on 06.25.07 at 08:26 PM


Hmm. I've been reading Kurlantzick's books (very slowly). I think he confuses "soft power" with the real issue, which is the growing ability of the Chinese to provide exit options for leaders disinclined to comply with US and European conditions. This not only provides the ability to actually exit, but also increases the leverage of these states with the US (and with Europe).

(I've been meaning to blog about this rather simple point for a while, as it relates to a larger project I've just started.)

posted by: Daniel Nexon on 06.25.07 at 08:26 PM [permalink]

PS: Tom Wight and I mention this issue at the end of our recent article on American Empire. Not so much a "soft power" issue in the Nye sense of the term (attractive power), but, as you note, an "economic power" issue and, moreover, and issue of control and influence.

posted by: Daniel Nexon on 06.25.07 at 08:26 PM [permalink]

I'm not sure there's any significant difference between 'soft power' and 'economic power', especially when the economic power comes in the form of carrots and more carrots, not US-style sticks.

Name a country with significant soft power which lacks economic power.

posted by: Jon H on 06.25.07 at 08:26 PM [permalink]

Jon H: the question isn't whether or not economic power contributes to "soft power," but whether the relevant dynamics here derives from "soft power." The term gets thrown around a lot, but it actually has a rather specific meaning and doesn't just amount to "forms of power that aren't military."

posted by: Daniel Nexon on 06.25.07 at 08:26 PM [permalink]

Jon H: economic power may or may not contribute to "soft power," but the question really hangs on whether or not the influence involved here has anything to do with "soft power."

posted by: Daniel Nexon on 06.25.07 at 08:26 PM [permalink]

I've always been pretty skeptical of the whole "soft power" analysis, believing it logically included so many forms of influence exercised by one state over others as to be all but useless.

Setting theory aside for one moment, though, recall that one of the most attractive things about Marxism in what used to be called the Third World was its provision of a theory allowing elites in power to stay in power, do with their enemies what they liked, and monopolize all power in the state. Nothing about Western notions of development and democracy provides any guarantees that governments in Africa, for example, or some nations in Asia will be able to do any of these things. And guarantees are what many of these governments are looking for.

The expansion of Chinese influence today offers some of what Marxism used to -- a rebuttal to the West's offer to take up a (usually subordinate) place in a global economy operating according to Western rules. Objectively, it may appear as if China is buying off elites of countries rich in natural resources it needs, and will discard them once the resources are gone. From the standpoint of the elites themselves, though, China offers a degree of shelter now from Western demands to follow Western standards of conduct, and resources with which to solidify their own grip on their respective countries. There are limits to the appeal China has, but in some parts of the world that appeal is very great at the moment.

posted by: Zathras on 06.25.07 at 08:26 PM [permalink]

Darfur is a good example of Cinese soft power in action where it provides a bulwark against the possible sactioning of the ongoing genocidal arabisation.

posted by: Gordon on 06.25.07 at 08:26 PM [permalink]

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