James Holmes

Chinese Soft Power: Another Typhoon Haiyan Victim

The unbelievably small amount of aid Beijing is offering Manila marks a new era of sneer diplomacy.

China never ceases to amaze. Not only has the leadership done away with a promising soft-power campaign that was years in the making. It razed its own soft-power edifice to the ground, and salted the ruins so nothing can take root again. Why remains a mystery.

The latest trouble sign came after Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippine Islands over the weekend, claiming at least more than 1,800 lives so far. Professor Mead posted an item marveling at the paltry sum Beijing committed to Philippine disaster relief. Upon reading it, I was sure Mead had omitted two or three zeroes. But sure enough, cross-checking his commentary against a Reuters report shows he had the figure right: US$100,000 in direct aid, and another US$100,000 through the Red Cross. Such token amounts give tokenism a bad name.

Forget smile diplomacy. This is sneer diplomacy. Many observers, myself included, ascribed Chinese inaction following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to immature capability. The PLA hadn’t yet fielded the expeditionary capabilities necessary to render assistance far from Chinese shores. Beijing did little because it could do little. Chinese forces, however, now own disaster-relief assets such as the hospital ship Peace Ark. Yet they remain idle. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Beijing is withholding help out of pique. Manila, after all, has the temerity to insist that its exclusive economic zone is, well, its exclusive economic zone. Seems political tit-for-tat trumps alleviating human suffering.

Such behavior appeared unthinkable not long ago, when China shrewdly put the faces of figures like Confucius and the Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He on its rise to great power. The message: China is a uniquely benevolent great power, incapable of abusing small neighbors.

Such appeals worked so long as Beijing stuck to its narrative. Soft power is the “power of attraction,” according to Professor Joe Nye, the concept’s godfather. Naval Diplomat coauthor Toshi Yoshihara likes to ask whether it’s a pheromone, or perfume. Answer: a pheromone.

Culture, institutions, and policies — the founts of soft power — must remain consistent for long periods of time to create expectations among target audiences. Erratic behavior, or behavior at odds with the image a country projects, is bound to strike observers as phony. Or rather, it’s apt to discredit the narrative. A sliding standard of conduct is no standard at all. Skepticism, if not disbelief, will greet Chinese diplomacy the next time Beijing tries to daub on perfume. A faint stench will come through.

There’s an upside to this from an American standpoint: China has made itself look small and petty, like a skinflint rather than a magnanimous power worthy of regional leadership. This is self-defeating conduct of a high order. Far be it from me to interfere with a strategic competitor intent on shooting himself in the foot. Fire!