SPEAKING FREELY China swims against soft power tide
By Tim Kumpe
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
It could have been a meeting in paradise. As it turned out, China's dream of restoring its rightful place in history seems to have been pushed further behind the horizon. What applies to the United States and its power all the more applies to China. China needs allies; it cannot go it alone. This is the fundamental basis which China's strategy seems to have ignored.
The status quo changer's strategic actions have changed the
status quo of its geo-strategic environment in an unfavorable way. This in part explains the outbursts of Lieutenant general Wang Guanzhong, the Chinese military's deputy chief of general staff, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's security summit, in Singapore last week as a reaction to US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's criticisms that pointed out that China was acting outside international law in the East and South China seas.
Several Asia-Pacific defense ministers at the summit agreed with these criticisms. Thus, instead of limiting US alliances in Asia-Pacific, Beijing became painfully aware of losing its ground. What China has gained by creating facts on the ground it has manifoldly lost in soft power.
The image Beijing is projecting by its assertive actions in defiance of international law is diametrically opposed to images of benevolence, credibility, and trust, often associated with the concept of soft power. China needs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a vehicle to realize the Chinese dream, but has antagonized many of its members.
Even more, Beijing's recent actions have also sown further seeds for strengthening the hard-power capabilities of its perceived opponents that are attempting to counter China's rise. Moreover, actions by China that have angered the region justify continued US military role, presence, and support there. Thus, on the balance sheet, China has lost ground in both soft- and hard-power capabilities from which the US and its allies profit.
Smart power is defined as the skillful combination of both hard and soft power. It relies on a strong military but also heavily depends on alliances, partnerships and institutions. Smart power thinks in terms of goals that involve power with others rather than simply thinking in terms of power over others. As the US rebalancing strategy gradually unfolds, the operationalization of a smart-power strategy becomes all the more visible.
Even prior to the security conference in Singapore, the US has taken great pains to strengthen its alliances with South Korea, Japan, and some Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam. As a part of smart-power strategy, America is gradually delegating more responsibilities towards its allies.
Regarding regional security, Japan, as the United States' strongest ally in Asia-Pacific, is expected to play a more active role. This is exactly what Japan is doing as can be seen by its actions and policies.
Amid rising tensions between China and other claimants to the South China Sea, Japanese Prime Minster Abe promised 10 patrol ships to the Philippines to strengthen their surveillance activities as well as support to Vietnam. Thus, Japan is doing its part to contribute to regional security and to implement the principle of realizing goals with others. We can see that to strengthen its Asian partners, the United States is not going it alone, but relies on its alliance partner Japan.
In addition to its actions, Tokyo also demonstrates through its policies that the US is exercising power with others. In support of implementing US smart-power strategy, Japan's strategy of "proactive pacifism" is designed to get China back in its proper place. Japan supports the Southeast Asian countries to protect themselves against Chinese claims in territorial disputes. Abe's strategy of proactive pacifism has a dual function. It is seeks to contain China and at the same time attempts to establish strong ties with Southeast Asia. Furthermore, concerned over China's possible use of force to change the status quo in the East China Sea, Japan intends closer cooperation with ASEAN "to ensure that the rule of law be respected in settling territorial disputes".
All in all, The Shangri-La Dialogue has both winners and losers, which can be measured in terms of smart power and the combination of hard and soft power. It was a clash of titans, a visible battle between un-smart power strategy and smart power strategy: Beijing versus Washington, and its allies and friends.
So far, Beijing's un-smart power modus operandi has not been very beneficial in winning friends throughout the region. China's actions didn't attract but antagonized. On balance sheet, its attempts to gain power have backfired and translated into losses of both hard and soft power.
Against the backdrop of heightened tensions in the East and South China seas, countries of the Asia-Pacific region are increasingly troubled by Chinese expansion. Consequently, whereas China lost much of its soft power charm, the US and Japan gained in terms of credibility, trust, and attractiveness. Beijing's loss is Washington's, Tokyo's, and its allies' and friends' gain.
Instead of backing off and leaving its regional allies unsupported, the US has reiterated its commitment to be a guarantor for regional security. Instead of weakening the US and its allies, recent events have rather strengthened them. Chinese behavior has encouraged and facilitated the justification for bolstering long-term hard power build-up. Thus, Beijing has emboldened the US position in Asia and at the same time made it easier to justify bolstering US allies and friends with military support.
The actions and commitments made by Japan and the United States prior to and at the Asia Security Summit in Singapore have produced tangible smart-power advances Both have reiterated their strong commitments as guarantors for regional security.
In line with smart power strategy, closer ties and cooperation are sought to deal with an increasingly assertive China boldly claiming the region's commons. China's strategic status quo changing actions have kicked off strategic countermoves. Beijing's assertiveness is countered by a smart-power strategy which is gradually gaining momentum.
If Beijing hasn't dropped its pursuit of the Chinese dream, it will have to adapt its un-smart-power strategy and shift towards a smart-power strategy backed up by integrity. The international community isn't against greatness, but it opposes greatness without integrity. International law is neither American nor Chinese. No responsible power is above the law.
Great power demands great responsibility. If China wants to be recognized as a responsible stakeholder in Asia-Pacific, it will have to act in accordance with rather than in defiance of international law. This is what makes a country great in a true sense.
Although soft power, as a part of smart power, is a descriptive rather than a normative concept, in the long-term its success depends on the agents' integrity which affects its credibility. Without credibility the agent is unable to create trust in the target and it will lose its ability to attract.
Therefore, an increase of smart power coupled with integrity wouldn't harm China. In fact, it would be very welcome. Not only would Beijing profit from the proper implementation, but it would also be beneficial for the other countries in Asia-Pacific.
The pursuit of a smart-power strategy coupled with integrity will enable China to realize the Chinese dream of "a prosperous nation with a strong military" without antagonizing the countries in Asia-Pacific.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Tim Kumpe holds a MA in Sinology and American Studies from Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany and is a PhD candidate at the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies (GIIASS), Tamkang University, Taiwan.
He can be contacted at email@example.com