China: an old hand at soft power

Beijing's approach of resolving difficulties before they arise is helping the region realise its human and economic potential

Rosita Dellios

Development, Economics and finance, Government and governance, Trade and industry, International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

14 August 2015

The West may worry that China is unwilling or unable to solve global problems. But if you look more closely, Beijing has a knack of solving problems before they arise.

Despite China’s rapid rise and its plans to build ‘silk roads’ of development from Asia through to Africa and the Middle East, it is still regularly dismissed as unfit for global leadership – neither willing nor able to solve global problems. The reasons for this vary, but much rests with China being perceived as more foe than friend. The absence of multi-party democracy puts China at odds with prevailing international norms. Many among the West’s opinion-makers do not believe the world has anything to learn from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), or that a CCP-ruled China could find legitimacy in the international order.

Lately, this sentiment has been expressed through the popular concept of ‘soft power’ – the power of attraction rather than coercion. An article by China specialist David Shambaugh in Foreign Affairs investigated China’s soft-power credentials and found them severely lacking. Despite admitting that China had pledged to invest US$1.25 trillion worldwide by 2025, he finds that it is to no avail as ‘’soft power cannot be bought.’’  It would be interesting to hear what the beneficiaries of this investment would have to say.

Shambaugh mentions Joseph Nye, the political scientist who coined the term ‘soft power’ (but did not invent the condition); and Nye himself quotes Shambaugh’s findings that China spends about US$10 billion a year in ‘’external propaganda’’, but still lacks trust and respect.

This is ironic as China itself is an old hand at soft power. ‘’Come and be transformed’’ (lai hua) was the motto of the Celestial Empire with its civilisational attributes that included trade and economic incentives. As to how soft power may be used to solve problems, China’s best known classical strategist, Sun Tzu, observed that whoever ‘’excels at resolving difficulties does so before they arise.’’ In the military sphere, he advised that it was best to win a war before it reached the battlefield.

The Daoist concept of wu-wei – or ‘actionless action’ – is also relevant here. It is better for China’s critics to belittle and diminish Beijing’s achievements, which are nonetheless real even if not readily recognised, than to engage in a dramatic clash. According to Three Strategies of Huang Shigong, another text that represents Chinese strategic culture: “The soft can control the hard, the weak can control the strong.” Affirming that the soft is ‘virtue’, the text adds that a proper mixture of all four (soft, hard, weak, strong) is needed: “Combine these four and control them appropriately.”

This comprehensive approach inclines China to take a wider view of the problem of security and prosperity today.  Believing that development is the greatest form of security, Beijing has arrived at a way of resolving difficulties before they arise. In doing so, the human and economic potential of the region is being realised. This is surely a major contribution to global order. As China’s finance minister, Lou Jiwei, said of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB): “This is China assuming more international responsibility for the development of the Asian and global economies.’’ The CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Kate Carnell, believes the “AIIB’s $100 billion capital base will go some way toward bridging the region’s infrastructure gap, particularly if it uses those funds to leverage private-sector support for projects.”

Indeed, 29 June 2015, when 50 countries (including Australia) signed the charter of AIIB at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing – another seven will sign by the end of the year when the bank will be open for business – is a date to remember.

It marks China’s rise to global leadership with the proverbial Chinese characteristics. These characteristics are likely to identify China as an invisible superpower in that it achieves much while appearing to be doing little.  Pragmatic projects like building roads and infrastructure may not count as high politics, but if they solve difficulties before they arise – and in fact help bring the fruits of development to much of the world – then such non-actions (wu-wei) may be rated as transformational.

These shared projects pave the way for a shared future that goes well beyond the narrow confines of soft power or security primacy.

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5 Responses

  1. W Chung says:

    I think this is an interesting article that looks at China from a more holistic perspective, somewhat different than the usual negative views expressed on China about its poor human rights record, or anything else that does not conform to Western thinking. Few people are willing to be receptive when those around them act differently than expected. This is unfortunate because such closed-mindedness blocks the opportunity for learning and understanding about international politics.

  2. jesse says:

    as a chinese,I’m shamed of our poor human rights record.

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