China Power

China’s Soft Power

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China Power

China’s Soft Power

Writer Joshua Kurlantzick discusses the benefits and limits of China’s use of soft power diplomacy.

The Diplomat speaks with Joshua Kurlantzick, author of ‘Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World’, about Chinese soft power diplomacy.


What kind of national image has China sought to project to the world through its cultural diplomacy that distinguishes it against other Asian nations?

I’m not sure China is trying to portray itself against other Asian nations, but I think it has used its soft power to boost its image compared to its own image of the past—its image in the 1970s and 80s and early 90s—as either disinterested in regional affairs or difficult and aggressive to deal with. Also, I think China has utilized its soft power and cultural diplomacy to try to create the idea, at least regionally, that it’s truly a good neighbour—that it shares values and heritage with its neighbours—and that the United States, in contrast, doesn’t.

What are the limits of China's soft power projections?

I think the limits of China’s soft power are where either they run up against China’s hard power ambitions—it can use its cultural diplomacy to try to win over Vietnam or the Philippines, but if Beijing then claims nearly the entire South China Sea, all the soft power in the world isn’t going to help—or when the soft power initiative runs up against its own limitations. For example, China’s ability to project its culture or its media is limited by the constraints on free expression within China itself.

How is China’s ‘no strings attached’ investment in Africa changing the way other states provide aid to Africa?

I think that, at times, China’s strategy of aid toward Africa, or other places like Cambodia, has pushed other donors to lessen their own standards on governance. I think Cambodia is a good example of this. That said, at times China also has worked with other donors and the broader international community.

Will the ‘legitimacy’ of China’s soft power be constrained by its policies toward Sudan, Zimbabwe, Tibet, North Korea and Taiwan?

I think the ‘legitimacy’ of China’s soft power is constrained more by its own successes and failures at home, economically and politically, rather than by its relations with other nations. So, to the extent that its policies toward Tibet could be considered a failure at home, that may matter.

What type of rapprochement can China and Japan build through soft power mechanisms?

Obviously, the Sino-Japanese relationship is highly complex and fraught with all sorts of tensions, including economic tensions, political tensions, and tensions over history. Cultural diplomacy, person-to-person diplomacy, soft power—all of these things can help smooth over the Sino-Japanese relationship at times of trouble. That said, cultural diplomacy also at times has actually heightened tensions in the Sino-Japanese relationship, since both sides are very sensitive about certain issues related to cultural diplomacy, including issues related to history.


Joshua Kurlantzick is the author of 'Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World.' His work has appeared in publications including The New Republic, Time, The Atlantic and The New York Times.  This interview was conducted by Sally Herd.