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Tweaking China’s Soft Power

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Tweaking China’s Soft Power

China’s soft power is widely talked about. But the country’s leaders will need to show flexibility to make it work.

With the global economic crisis that has rocked financial markets showing little sign of abating, calls for increased Asian intervention have also gained momentum. In particular, struggling European economies have been looking to cash-rich China as a savior, a fact that was clearly not lost on Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao while attending the World Economic Forum in September.  In his speech there, Wen emphasized that while Beijing was willing to offer assistance, other countries must also “first put their house in order,” a reference to the sovereign debt crisis in Europe.

China’s global rise is, of course, one of the biggest topics in international affairs. But the key question is still: Can China lead the world, and if so, where is its leadership heading?

For now, the evidence is mixed. Over the years, the phrase heping jueqi, or peaceful rise, has become a staple in the vocabulary of Chinese leaders. What this means, according to a speech given by Wen in 2004, is that China won’t threaten other nations, even as it becomes a global power.

However, global events since then have undoubtedly altered the dynamics of this strategy. The United States’ preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the financial turmoil of the past few years, has diluted expectations of the West’s ability to shape the international political landscape.  Terms such as “post-American world,” “Asian century” and “multi-polar world order” have, as a result, been mentioned with increasing conviction.

In a key essay in October, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted the importance of the Asia-Pacific region as a key driver of global politics, emphasizing the importance of maintaining U.S. leadership in the region. But she also noted that the open, rules-based system established by the United States had allowed China to prosper, and added that greater transparency and reform – political, economic and legal – was needed for China not only to achieve its own goals, but to contribute to global objectives.

So has this call been heeded by Beijing?

While Chinese leaders have generally eschewed explicit mention of China’s global leadership role, they have nonetheless asserted Beijing’s right to influence matters of global concern. From protests in the Middle East to nuclear energy, China hasn’t shied from articulating its preferences – if not prescriptions – where its national interests are concerned. This active posturing, though, is a double-edged sword for Beijing’s foreign policy: while China has the right to speak its mind, China must then also undertake greater responsibilities if it wants to see its views prevail.

With this in mind, expect to see China boost its oft-talked about charm offensive. A 2009 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies argued that China’s use of soft power was largely for “defensive and reactive purposes…intended to allay fears in other states of a China threat.” A recent Beijing Review article, meanwhile, noted that between 2008 and 2010, Beijing’s cultural industries recorded a growth rate of 24.2 percent per annum, with a value of 1.1 trillion yuan ($172 billion) added in 2010 alone. Since July 2009, China’s cultural industries have also been accorded the same strategic status as other key industries such as steelmaking, petrochemicals and textiles.  In October, the Chinese Communist Party convened a plenum in which guidelines for cultural industries were set down by top party leaders.

So, will Beijing’s efforts to charm the neighbors be successful?

To succeed, China will first have to tweak its approach to projection of soft power. In Chinese policy circles, there’s a tacit understanding that “keeping a low profile” (taoguangyanghui) was necessary for China to retain the autonomy to act under terms favorable to its own interests. But such a posture also stokes fears among Western observers that China’s true intentions are hidden from view (yincangzhenshimudi). This is unfortunate, both for the Chinese and for the global community, especially if Beijing’s promise of peaceful development is to be affirmed.

To forge greater trust between China and the world, Chinese leaders will ultimately have to recalibrate their growth and stability at all costs approach to development, and be more open to extending personal freedoms and freedom of speech among its citizens. As the Financial Times’ David Pilling argued in a recent essay, the Chinese Communist Party’s suppression of dissent imposes limits on Beijing’s promotion of its brand of soft power. Ultimately, the increasingly rapid way in which ideas can now be diffused across the globe suggests that a centralized state-based approach to governance may be untenable.

The entrance of the United States and Russia to the East Asia Summit this year suggests that the future configuration of the Asia-Pacific regional architecture will see a growing interplay between the great powers. With the West still floundering from its economic problems, now seems as good an opportunity as any for China to demonstrate a different style of leadership. The ball is in Beijing’s court.

Benjamin Ho Tze Ern is an Associate Research Fellow in the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.