A hard look at China's soft power By David Isenberg
China's attempts to use its "soft power" assets are increasingly successful,
although not without problems, according to a recent United States
Soft power means the non-military tools of foreign and national security
policies, including international trade and investment, development assistance,
cultural influence, humanitarian aid, travel and tourism.
On May 5, Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, released a study, prepared by the Congressional Research Service
(CRS). The study, "China's
Foreign Policy and Soft Power in South America, Asia, and South Africa" found
both strengths and weaknesses in China's approach to the world.
On the plus side China provides the developing world access to cheap credit and
inexpensive consumer goods, and many countries are enjoying rapidly rising
revenues due to Chinese demand for their exports.
On the negative side, China's manufacturing strength makes it difficult for
industries in the developing world to gain a competitive advantage, putting
some out of business. And China's investment in developing economies,
particularly in natural resource extraction, sometimes undermines international
efforts to link aid and investment to measurable progress by recipient
countries in combating corruption, improving transparency, and respecting human
The study noted, that given China's non-democratic regime it holds a
comparative advantage in attempting to increase its influence. The study noted:
recipient governments of PRC [People's Republic of China] trade and investment
are particularly attracted to the fact that Chinese money generally comes with
none of the pesky human rights conditions, good governance requirements,
approved-project restrictions, and environmental quality regulations that
characterize US and other Western government investments. With an authoritarian
government that has few if any democratic imperatives, China has capitalized on
its willingness to make such "unrestricted" international investments as part
of its "win-win" international strategy.
One example was in
response to the December 2006 military coup in Fiji when Beijing promised to
continue its aid programs on the grounds that the coup was Fiji's "internal"
On the other hand such a "hands-off" approach could have negative longer-term
implications for how China is viewed within the countries in which it is
investing. Over the long term China's approach has potential negative
consequences that could counterbalance any soft power advantages.
But as China has become more engaged in world affairs, it has also discovered
that its foreign entanglements may not always be popular at home or abroad. The
report also indicates that China must grapple with many limitations on its
influence. CRS cited a study of UN voting records that found that nations with
increased trade dependence on China do not appear more willing to vote with
Moreover, CRS found that China's soft power achievements - such as disaster
relief assistance worldwide - pale in comparison to those of the United States.
The soft power gains that China hopes to achieve are minimal compared to the
capacity and willingness of the United States to take on costly global tasks
such as international disaster aid. "Nothing in Beijing's current soft power
approach suggests it is willing to embrace such altruism," according to the
CRS also found that China's cumulative stock of foreign direct investment (FDI)
worldwide amounted to just $73.3 billion at the end of 2006 - 0.58% of global
In addition, America's private sector leaves a "substantial global footprint"
sometimes overlooked by those comparing only government directed overseas
initiatives. Aside from US business interests these include such diverse
products as schools, newspapers, journals, banks, movies, TV programs, novels,
rock stars, medical institutions, politicians, religious groups, and
The study also found that there is little agreement on whether China marshals
its "soft-power" assets as part of a pragmatic, overarching strategy. Nobody is
sure whether China makes decisions in general terms, with regard to specific
regions or countries, or whether it is just a series of marginally related
tactical moves to seek normal economic and political advantages. Of course, as
the study notes, similar questions could be raised about the overall US
approach to China.
The fact that China uses soft power does not, however, mean they are
disconnected form hard power goals. The study notes that in all three of the
regions - Latin America, Asia-Pacific and Sub-Saharan Africa - discussed, where
China is most active, access to energy resources and raw commodities to fuel
China's domestic growth plays a dominant role in Beijing's activities.
China has oil and gas exploration contracts with Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia,
Colombia, Venezuela and Cuba; oil contracts and pipeline deals are a major part
of China's activities in its relations with Central Asian states such as
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and China's oil exploration interests extend to
Burma, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Imports of crude oil constitute the bulk of
China's imports from African states.
China also deploys its soft power as part of the political dynamic of trying to
separate Taiwan from its remaining diplomatic relationships, although this
dynamic varies according to region. While it is important in China's African
relationships, it is not important in China's relations with Central Asian
countries, where Taiwan has no official diplomatic relations. It is a
negligible factor in China's relationships with Southeast Asian countries,
where Taiwan has significant economic interests but no diplomatic ties.
But the Taiwan-China competition looms large in China's relationships in Latin
America and the Caribbean. The region's proximity to the US mainland allows
Taiwan's president and senior leaders to ask for symbolically meaningful
transit stops in the United States when making official visits to western
hemisphere countries. A significant reduction, or even the disappearance, of
Taiwan's Latin America and Caribbean relationships could greatly impair this US
David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security
affairs, firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also a member of the Coalition for a
Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute,
contributor to the Straus Military Reform Project, a research fellow at the
Independent Institute, and a US Navy veteran. The views expressed are his own.