China rickshaws at drum tower

Chinese Soft Power: Sources And Implications For The US

Where does China’s soft power stem from, and what are its implications for the US? 
{Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge}


China rickshaws at drum tower


China’s rise, fuelled by more than three decades of ‘miraculous’ levels of economic growth, has equipped Beijing with an impressive and quite unique set of ‘powers’ (Lampton, 2007). Economic power is at the heart of all other aspects of Chinese power. It has enabled investment in the rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (Tkacik, 2007), as well as related ‘asymmetric capabilities’ (Shirk, 2008:194) as cyberwarfare (Fritz, 2008) and advanced military space technology (Logan, 2007). Moreover, it has allowed Beijing to maximize its security through deals advancing China’s energy security and securing key raw materials. These issues, and their implications for US security interests, are extensively studied in Washington (e.g. Waldron, 2005; Ridley, 2005; Office of the SoD 2009, 2010).

Apart from economic realpolitik, as in the form of securing resources and capacity for economic warfare[1] (Segal, 2004:169-170), China’s economic growth, has also energized Beijing’s ‘soft power’. Soft power, coined by Nye in 1990, can be broadly defined as non-coercive, co-optive power- the power of attraction. The attractiveness of a state is affected by its culture, history, membership and role in international institutions, as well as its economic performance and stature (Nye, 1990:167). Other crucial sources of soft power are ‘political ideology and diplomacy’ (Gill and Huang, 2006:17). China’s economic power is the key motor behind its mounting soft power.

This paper focuses on China’s soft power, with a view to delve deeper into the latter’s impact on the US and its interests. It begins with an analysis of the sources and complex structure of China’s soft power. Subsequently, it assesses how the US may be affected by Beijing’s co-optive power, with an emphasis on both direct and indirect aspects of that influence. It looks at China’s ideational influence in its near abroad, the MENA region and Latin America to shed light how Beijing’s influence may affect American interests. It closes with an analysis of China’s augmenting soft power in multilateral settings, and how this may on occasions marginalize US influence. America remains the most powerful state in the international system. No country in the world has more ‘global’ interests than the US. China’s growing soft power affects American interests around the world therefore, a thorough assessment of this process is imperative.

II. The Sources of Chinese Soft Power: Economic Performance, an Alternative Development Model and a Unique Culture

Economic Performance

The preeminent source of China’s attractiveness is its economic performance. The ability to maintain close to 10 percent growth for over three decades (Kaplan, 2010:22), enjoy substantial stability and lift 300 million people out of poverty[2], together constitute an unprecedented achievement (Ramo, 2004:10-11). Beijing has realized these achievements following a novel, unconventional, non-western development path. Underlying driver behind the Chinese development model is innovation. The continuation of the ‘Chinese miracle’ depends greatly on incessant innovation, which ‘cuts time-to-reform’ and is ‘the only cure for the problems of change’ (ibid.:15). Innovation increases the ‘density’ in the Chinese society, which in turn decisively boosts economic growth (ibid.:13-16). Cultural values, as national ‘pride of culture’ may also increase density (ibid.:33); the CCP recognises and uses this accordingly.

Economic and Political Ideology

Beijing has embraced many of the key tenants of capitalism and is largely a market economy (McKinnon, 2010:504), with a ‘Chinese twist’, that Halper (2010:10) calls ‘state capitalism’ or ‘market-authoritarianism’. The CCP largely controls key business sectors, owns firms of strategic importance, and restricts political liberties with a view to ensuring stability (Halper, 2010:30). The ‘Chinese way’ to economic growth and development is increasingly emulated around the world. The illiberal nature of Chinese ‘market-authoritarianism’ means developed democracies are unlikely to be lured and show any keenness to emulate this model (Nye, 2006:9). Reversely, growth and development, without western democracy[3] seems a particularly luring ‘package’ to various illiberal regimes across the developing world, and especially in Africa and the Middle East (Gill and Huang, 2006:20). The ideology of self-determination and the inviolability of sovereignty which Beijing puts forth simultaneously, further attract those illiberal states which are worried in the light of a more interventionist West[4] (Halper, 2010:31).

The Beijing Consensus

‘The Beijing Consensus’ (BJC) is a concept / theory, first discussed by Ramo (2004) and further developed by Halper (2010), which draws together the different aspects of Chinese soft power, delineates the powerful links between economic and soft power, and explains China’s muscle. Ramo (2004:11-12) explains the three central theorem’s of the BJC: a) the key to development is ‘bleeding-edge innovation’ to ‘create change that moves faster than the problems change creates’; b) fundamental need to shift development’s focus to individuals, their ‘quality-of-life’ with sustainability and equality as priorities; c) a security doctrine which stresses self-determination, through the use of leverage and asymmetry. Halper (2010:32) explains that deliberately or not:

‘Beijing is inadvertently promoting a most troublesome export: the example of the China model’.

While many Americans see the BJC as a challenge, an increasing number of nations, especially those ‘tired of others interfering’ see Beijing and the BJC as a great opportunity (Vogel, 2006:16).

Power – Values, Culture, Ideas

China’s power in the realm of ideas has been rising exponentially, largely hand-in-hand with its ‘development model’- as the latter ‘goes global’. Beijing advances a set of ideas, which accommodate its rise as a great power. Key idea is the concept of a ‘peaceful rise’ put forth by Bijian in 2003 (Suettinger, 2004:2). It is instrumental for Chinese soft power, as it serves to reduce the stress induced to neighbours and other powers byChina’s ascension to great-power-status. By alleviating fear and suspicion, ‘peaceful rise’ effectively allows China’s soft power to blossom. Also, China has become the world’s largest contributor to UN peacekeeping missions (Wang, 2008:264). This, arguably helps Beijing put forth a more comprehensive profile of a ‘champion of peace’, prosperity and stability (Lampton, 2007:119-120). Importantly, China’s ‘peaceful rise’ is only part of the puzzle of the ‘peaceful rise of Asia’ (Suettinger, 2004:2-3).

Another important concept serves to frame Beijing’s vision of society. That is the idea of a ‘harmonious society’– stable, based on spiritual civilization, but simultaneously a ‘society of thrift’– one that continually innovates and addresses resourcefully the repercussions of the ‘old model of industrialization’ (Bijian, 2005:22). To realize these, the CCP advances the concept of ‘closeness to the people’ (Ramo, 2004:30). Closeness of government to the people, will create ‘an environment where bottom-up development can work’ (ibid.:31). These ideas are very important, especially with placing the individual at the heart of the national development strategy. This last concept for instance attracted the attention of Brazil and Mexico (ibid.:33-34).

Lastly, the Chinese cultural value of ‘social stability’ is the second most important social value in China. In sync, it is the single most important element for economic growth (ibid.:23). Since social stability is the key to economic growth, and economic growth and development are central to the legitimization of an authoritarian government, then, the fact that China champions both makes her and her model hyper-attractive in certain areas of the world.

The Broader Context

Important external factors for the rise of Beijing’s soft power include the failure of the Washington Consensus, the erosion of US soft power and the global economic crisis. In the years following 9/11 America went through its ‘unipolar moment’, which claimed it political capital, weakened alliances and distanced friends. Human rights violations in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib further weakened America’s attractiveness and traumatized its moral example. This paper deems that there was a power vacuum in the realm of ideas that China’s concepts in part came to fill. In parallel, the BJC comes as a bright contrast to the ominously failed Washington Consensus. Even more importantly perhaps,China has managed to maintain robust, double-digit economic growth at the most difficult perhaps time for Western economies since the Great Recession (Halper, 2010:33-37).

III. Implications of China’s Soft-Power’s for the US; Evidence of Direct influence

To begin with, an increasing number of American tourists visit China to discover its culture, history and get their own, first-hand impression of the rising power. Moreover, a systematic promotion of the Chinese language has been underway for quite some time, and now an increasing number of people are ‘flocking to China to learn the Chinese language’ (Saich, 2006:4). In parallel, an increasing number of American schools are introducing Chinese language programs (ibid.). Moreover, one fourth of US universities now have Chinese language courses (Gil, 2008:119). Gill and Huang (2006:18) stress the importance of the ‘HSK’-‘TCFL’, the ‘Chinese’ TOEFL, which has been seeing a 50% annual growth.

The number of Confucius institutes in the US has also been growing exponentially. Since 2005 when the first Confucius institute was set up in Maryland, another 86 institutes have been set up in 37 American states (CIO, 2011). Confucius institutes advance the teaching of Chinese culture and language, while they also work to improve the ‘Brand China’ (Ramo, 2007). In other words, Confucius institutes are investments in ‘public diplomacy’ (Wang, 2008:264), geared at presenting a ‘kinder and gentler image of China to the outside world’ (Gill and Huang, 2006:18-19).

On a similar note, the influence of the China Radio International (CRI) (which broadcasts in Washington), has been expanding considerably, largely thanks to consecutive CCP investments (Nye, 2006:23). The CRI promotes tourism, cultural exchanges and the spread of the Chinese language. CRI’s stated objective is ‘to introduce China to the world’ (CRIENGLISH, 2011). In parallel, China has been sponsoring Chinese cultural festivals in the US, some on an annual basis. An exemplification of these efforts was the impressive $2m month-long China festival at the Washington Kennedy Center in October 2005 (Gill and Huang, 2006:19).  The spread of the Chinese language, coupled with an interest in Chinese culture and history, is tangible evidence of Beijing’s increasing soft power influence in the US.

An important policy advice CCP gives to major businesses and also practices with state-sponsored firms is investing in the US as part of ‘an effective and long-term solution to China’s image problem in the US’ (Lampton, 2007:122). The calculation is that setting-up firms and factories in the US means hiring American employees – hence, buying influence over their congressmen (Lampton, 2007:123). For instance ‘Chinese companies invested $280m and created more than 1,200 jobs in South Carolina alone’ (Prasso, 2010)[5].

In spite of multilevel, strategic direct engagement of Chinese soft power and its extensions with the US public, Lampton   (2007:124) suggests that:

China’s reputation in the United States still suffers. International public opinion polls uniformly reveal that Americans have more negative views of China than do most other people, predisposing Washington to be tougher with China than are other governments.’

This does not mean that the increasing presence of Chinese soft power institutions, cultural exchanges and influences are unimportant. However, it does suggest that in spite of systematic efforts, a clear image problem in the US persists, impeding Chinese ideational power from profoundly influencing the American public. Hence, though discernible and tangible, its implications are not decisive enough to influence considerably Washington’s China policy.

IV. ‘Weiji’ in the Near Abroad and Significance for the US

Weiji, the Chinese word which describes the combination of threat and opportunity, best describes the way China is perceived in its near abroad. Take Taiwan for instance. Taiwan has the greatest justification to feel ‘threatened’ by China’s rise; and it does. Nonetheless, concurrently, the rise of China has presented Taiwan with immense opportunities. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner and Taiwan one of China’s biggest investors. Economic ties have flourished over the last years (Halper, 2010:18). Now over a million Taiwanese live and work in the mainland, while more and more Taiwanese set up businesses and invest in China (ibid.).

Chinese soft power and the concepts that underlie / frame it, have been central for improving relations with Taiwan. The Chinese guarantee of non-forceful (re-)unification with Taiwan is enhanced strongly by the ‘peaceful rise’ policy and associated rhetoric, as well as the ‘good neighbourliness’ concept, epitomized by the saying: ‘A far away relative is less helpful than one living nearby’ (Ramo, 2004:52). Improvement of Taipei’s relations with the mainland is good news for the US, the main protector of Taiwan. It reduces the risk of crisis and escalation, while continuous multi-level bonding in the social and economic sphere coupled with confidence-building exercises has produced solid outcomes as the election of the Kuomintang Party (2008) (Halper, 2010:19).

Japan, can understandably be worried seeing China modernising the PLA, especially given the fact that Japan has no nuclear deterrent or overwhelming conventional forces. Beijing’s lack of transparency re its military budget is not helping either (Carpenter, 2007). Also, Japan saw China overtaking it as the world’s second largest economy in mid-2010 (Barboza, 2010). Nonetheless, trade and cooperation between Japan and China have seen a great surge. Cooperation through the ‘ASEAN Plus Three’ – (APT) framework has been important in this respect (Foot, 2006:85). Moreover, the ‘peaceful rise’ – ’good neighbourliness’ policies and China’s overall emphasis on peaceful, diplomatic resolution of Sino-Japanese disputes (with the exception of some rather short bursts of Chinese realpolitik assertiveness) has been crucial for preventing so far an Asian ‘arms race’. Chinese assurances, and tangible evidence of backing them, have helped prevent a major security dilemma; hence, Japan feels less pressured to emphasize re-armament and perhaps move rapidly to acquire nuclear weapons. This also means one less worry for the US, who labours to prevent a proliferation race in the region. Moreover, Yoshihara and Holmes (2008:136) also point to the important role of the sizable Chinese ethnic minorities in the region and in Japan, which ‘naturally’ encourages diplomatic solutions over confrontation.

North and South Korea are perhaps an even more complex case. South Korea is arguably attracted by the economic opportunities posed by having Beijing as its partner under the latter’s benevolent neighbourhood policy. Reversely, North Korea is attracted to Beijing as it provides it with a way around the tough sanctions and other US-led counter-measures geared at pressuring Pyongyang to put an end to its nuclear programme. Moreover, Pyongyang is arguably magnetized by the Chinese miracle as it is in great need of rapid economic growth and development – not least in order to legitimize its rule at a time when the majority of its citizens are going through profound economic poverty and hardship. Though this stance is undermining South Korea’s security interests, economic opportunity and anticipation of a more ‘responsible’ stance by China on the North Korean issue (Zoellick, 2006:96), have allowed closer Chinese-South Korean cooperation. The situation for the US would be much more complicated if Beijing-Seoul relations were only confrontational and antagonistic in nature. This, rather more balanced picture allows space for engagement, cooperation, and at times, through deliberation allows for more constructive US – Chinese – South Korean diplomacy re Seoul.

In sum, Beijing’s ‘charm offensive’ (Kurlantzick, 2007) in the near abroad, has helped isolate Taiwan internationally, but engage it further on all levels nationally. It has tried to ease the worries of Japan and South Korea with evidence of occasional success. Lastly, it has charmed North Korea, over which it has, in theory, considerable diplomatic influence, but has not yet coordinated action with the international community adequately. Beijing’s ‘charm offensive’ largely advances American interests. Beijing’s foreign policy doctrine and approach works to reduce confrontation and tensions – and hence the risk of conflict. Therefore, it follows that it also reduces the risk of America having to intervene to uphold its guarantee to Taiwan, or extend its nuclear shield to Japan.

V. Chinese Soft Power in Africa, Middle East and Latin America and the Importance for the US                                                 

The influence of Chinese soft power in the MENA region and Latin America is profound, complex and needs ample space to be evaluated in depth. This section epigrammatically and selectively refers to some key points and assesses their importance for the US.

China and MENA

The absence of conditions apart from conforming with the ‘one-China-policy’ to trade with, or receive aid from China is crucial for Sino-African relations. Many African states increasingly rely on Beijing, fascinated by China’s growth and development, hoping they can learn and gain from the ‘Chinese example’ (Brookes and Shin, 2006:1-2). The security dimension of the ‘Beijing Consensus’ – and particularly the ‘self-determination’ clause – is very attractive for isolated ruthless regime’s, in pariah / nearly-failed states, like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and Al-Bashir’s Sudan (Halper, 2010:83-87). This renders the conduct of strategic diplomacy by the US ineffectual. Isolation fails, sanctions miss, and the option / threat of humanitarian intervention seems less threatening given the improbability of mandating action through the UNSC.

In Africa, China’s image has been thriving, not least because of its tangible contribution to economic development, mainly through the building of infrastructure projects and advancing the technological capabilities of many developing nations (Foster, et. al., 2008). This advantageous image, of the benevolent actor who delivers results, combined with the ‘spirit’ and values enshrined in the BJC explains why now most of Africa looks to China rather than the US for a reliable partner[6]. A key implication of this new reality for the US is that it is losing out in the ‘race’ of securing energy resources, as Chinese energy firms increasingly ‘lock’ resources through long-term semi-barter deals in resource-rich African states (Brookes and Shin, 2006:2).

Similar difficulties have been posed in dealing with proliferation in the Middle East, and the question of Iran. China’s enthusiasm to fill the vacuum left from Western – largely American firms – leaving Iran in conjunction with US (and EU) sanctions, have held back the negotiations and undermined the ability of the US and the international community to effectively pressure the Iranian government. China’s ‘diplomatic cover’ / umbrella has on occasions, proven a major obstacle (Halper, 2010:91-92).

In Latin America, the role of China has been expanding rapidly. Chinese cultural and educational programs have been expanding with positive impact for the reception of China in the region (Pan, 2006). Moreover, Bush era’s American hegemony alienated friends and distanced allies in Latin America, who increasingly find in Beijing a robust and increasingly crucial partner. Both Halper (2010) and Ramo (2004) discuss in considerable depth the strengthening of Venezuelan – Chinese relations. America is the largest consumer of Venezuelan oil. In pursuit of more independence, Chavez increasingly opts to maximize oil sales to China (Halper, 2010:90). Expanding Chinese soft power in Latin America may be disturbing for the US for geopolitical reasons, as Beijing’s friendships and alliances in America’s near abroad may generate concern. Also, America cedes ground in the ‘great game’ of resource acquisition.

VI. Chinese Soft Power and Multilateral Fora. A New Role? The Significance for the US

China’s attractiveness is particularly evident in multilateral settings. As always, interest in China relates to the economic opportunities that arise from increased cooperation. Nonetheless, multilateral organizations are crucial marketplaces of ideas in conjunction with everything else. Chinese ideational power is increasingly apparent in a series of fora/IOs. For instance, the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) started out with the focused agenda of mediating border disputes, but Chinese ideational leadership quickly broadened SCO’s mandate to include politico-economic cooperation in other spheres as well as broader issues of security. To cite an example, in 2005, after denying US observer status in the SCO (Cohen, 2006:8), a Chinese-led SCO declaration pressed Washington to withdraw its forces from Uzbekistan (Halper, 2010:79). Chinese soft power has effectively created a multilateral milieu which deliberately excludes the US, and can at times pressure it.

Similarly, the US is excluded from both the ‘ASEAN Plus One’ and the ‘APT’ arrangement. China has a leading role in these arrangements, effectively creating separate economic spheres with considerable geopolitical gains for China and non-negligible implications for America (Halper, 2010:28). In 2009, the first ‘BRIC Summit’ took place, serving as a platform for exchange of ideas on trade and aid, with an emphasis on how to exclude the US. When Obama asked to send a delegation with the status of observers, his request was turned down (Halper, 2010:29). Through these multilateral settings, China advances simultaneously its ‘good neighbourliness’ and the ‘China Opportunity’ concepts, which command considerable gravitas in the above-discussed regional IOs (Ramo, 2004: 51-53).

Overall, the exclusion of the US from increasingly important fora and IOs is a demonstration that Chinese soft power and effective multilateral strategy can be in direct competition with American soft power. Moreover, it shows that whenever Beijing ‘marks a victory’, it opts to exclude the US from the new setting, to carve out alternative spaces for ideational exchanges, often with the deliberate collective aim of operating outside the US-set / dominated framework.

VII. Conclusion or A clear Assessment of the Nature and Composition of Chinese Soft Power as well as its Impact on America and its Global Interests

Chinese soft power is uniquely complex. It is so conflated with economic influence that they seem, at times, almost inseparable. This paper found that Chinese soft power stems greatly from the example of its development model. It impresses nations around the world that may not necessarily want to emulate the model, but are attracted to China, and draw closer to Beijing. A set of ideas, many endeavouring to frame China’s intentions vis-à-vis its neighbours, partners and friends, are also a key component of China’s ideational influence. The ‘Beijing Consensus’ has considerable analytical value and is a handy summation of Beijing’s ‘power of example’, cultural and political influence. China’s soft power has been also empowered by the erosion of US soft power America suffered during the G.W.Bush era.

After identifying the sources of Chinese soft power, this thesis examined its impact on American interests. It started with an analysis of the direct impact of Chinese soft power on the US to show that although on-the-rise, Chinese soft power has a limited direct impact on the US. Subsequently, this paper analysed the impact of Chinese soft power in its near abroad, and found that though China presents a threat and opportunity at the same time, its power of public diplomacy and attraction rather advances America’s aim of peace and stability in this sensitive area. This paper’s succinct analysis of China’s ideational influence in MENA and Latin America demonstrated that Chinese ideas often attract dodgy regimes, with which China engages, and hence carries high responsibility. When China uses its soft power in a responsible way, then, America and the international community benefit greatly; when not, it undermines efforts aimed at making this world a safer place (Zoellick, 2006, Shirk, 2008). Lastly, China’s soft power in multilateral settings is impressive. Apart from the UN, China has empowered the ASEAN Plus One and APT fora, has developed the SCO and has given a new dynamic to the ‘BRIC Summit’. In all these, it has laboured to carve a leading role for itself, while marginalizing America’s role.

*Information cut off point: May, 2012 (albeit minor updates)

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1] (e.g. dollar reserves or trade policy)

[2] Other sources, as Wan (2008: 416) suggest that Beijing lifted 422 million people out of poverty.

[3] (or economic freedom without political freedom)

[4] Alluding to concepts as humanitarian intervention and responsibility to protect; as well as pre-emptive and preventive military action.

[5] Multiply 1,200 by at least say 3 (family), and Chinese firms may influence the lives (and hence votes) of over 3,500 people – a serious political capital indeed.

[6] China’s charm offensive in Africa has equipped China with considerable sway over an impressive voting bloc in IOs and the one third of the UN General Assembly in particular (Halper, 2010: 112-113). Crucially, this helped China be awarded the 2008 Olympics, a significant soft-power boost. Most of these relations are cultivated through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (ibid.).


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