Pacific Money

Asia’s Soft Power Deficit

Recent Features

Pacific Money

Asia’s Soft Power Deficit

The Asia-Pacific may be racing ahead economically, but it still lags the West in soft power, according to new research.

Asia’s Soft Power Deficit
Credit: Tokyo 2020 via Korkusung /

In its inaugural “Soft Power 30” index announced on July 14, London-based communications consultancy Portland ranked Britain first, Germany second, and the United States third in its survey of soft power assets, based on data from 50 countries.

Contrasting with the “hard” power of military and economic might, soft power was first coined in 1990 by Harvard University’s Professor Joseph Nye to explain the use of “positive attraction and persuasion” to achieve foreign policy objectives. Portland’s survey ranked nations based on six categories comprising government, culture, education, global engagement, enterprise and digital, including both objective metrics and subjective international polling data.

According to the report, Britain ranked top with “an unmatched combination of strong assets across all categories of soft power,” particularly culture, digital and global engagement, while Germany “benefits from a higher level of trust from the global public to ‘do the right thing in foreign affairs’ than any other major power.” For third-ranked the United States though, “perceptions of American foreign policy” dragged it down, despite leading the world in education, culture and digital.

Yet although Australia ranked sixth, Japan eighth, and New Zealand 16th, Asia’s next highest nation was South Korea in 20th place, followed by Singapore (21st), while China ranked 30th, despite its status as the world’s second-largest economy.

Scenery Shines Down Under

Australia benefitted from its “domestic stability, areas of natural beauty, easygoing citizens, and an overwhelmingly pleasant climate,” complimented with its “Koala Diplomacy” goal of taking “a more prominent role in international affairs.”

The nation’s actions on the MH17 disaster and in combating international terrorism were cited as examples of its diplomacy also having claws, with the nation earning its highest scores for engagement and enterprise but lowest scores for culture, digital and polling.

However, the report said “a cuddly koala will only get you so far,” with the “lucky country” needing to redouble diplomatic efforts to reinforce its “laid back” image and capitalize on its advantageous position in Asia.

Neighboring New Zealand also ranked particularly highly in engagement, culture and education, with its “great quality of life, beautiful scenery, love of all sports and generous hospitality.” These assets were only slightly negated by its “obvious geographical disadvantage” that made influence projection a challenge.

Nevertheless, with the OECD’s “Better Life Index” ranking New Zealand ahead of the United States in traditional soft power areas such as civic engagement, life satisfaction, health and safety, the Kiwis appear to be enjoying “overwhelming happiness,” perhaps helped by recent sporting success.

Japan’s Sun Still Rising

Despite having faced “difficult times of late,” Japan gained high scores for government, culture and digital, earning praise for its “unique” culture and “pursuit of perfection, most notably in its cuisine, technology and luxury goods.” The nation ranked third globally for enterprise, with its companies “admired around the world for their innovation, precision, and excellence in design.”

“Despite two decades of recession, [Japan] remains a major aid donor, and a source of global credit and capital. Japan was a founding member of the Asian Development Bank and is the largest historical contributor to infrastructure development in the region,” the report said.

However, it questioned whether there was a role for harnessing Japan’s “considerable” soft power assets in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent push for a more “proactive pacifism” in response to China’s “regional posturing.”

The report also said Japan needed to improve its foreign language capability, while taking advantage of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics to help promote itself to the world.

South Korea’s Cultural Power

Neighboring South Korea polled highly, earning high scores for engagement and government as “an early adopter of soft power among Asian nations.”

South Korea has “invested heavily in its culture and creative industries,” becoming a “consumer electronics powerhouse” based on the rise of “K-Pop” music and companies such as LG and Samsung, currently the “second most valuable brand in the world.”

The nation also has become “a bigger player in major international networks” such as the United Nations, although it also faces challenges including “a more assertive China, a hostile and nuclear-armed neighbor to the North, and perennially tricky relations with Japan.”

South Korea was also dragged down by perceptions of its foreign policy, with the report recommending it ramp up efforts to “engage global audiences.”

Singapore Slinging High

Ranked a notch below South Korea, Singapore “punches above its weight” in soft power, with the small but wealthy city-state “an attractive place for business and tourists alike.”

“Boasting an open and globalized economy, Singapore is often referred to as one of Asia’s economic ‘tigers’ – [a] fact recognized by the World Bank, which ranks Singapore as the easiest country in the world in which to do business,” the report said.

Singapore ranked highly for engagement, government, culture and education, coming second only to Switzerland in the field of enterprise due to its “business friendly” approach and its government’s “multicultural inclusivity.”

Yet with weaknesses including the “negative global attention” placed on its “harsh punishment” against anti-social acts, the report suggested Singapore “not place all of its eggs in the business basket.”

China: Economics Trumps Politics

China gained 30th place from its economic power, scoring highest for government and digital due to its large population and economy that give it greater “business and political leverage.”

“Foreign companies are willing to make concessions on intellectual property rights and knowledge transfers to gain access to the Chinese market, while foreign governments temper their responses to Chinese territorial aggression or state-sponsored computer hacking to avoid destabilizing their relationships with the economic superpower,” the report said.

However, while the Chinese economy continues to transition from public to private ownership, the report noted “growing pains for both China’s business leaders and the Communist Party,” including its recent seesawing stock market.

“China has a wealth of soft power assets when it comes to culture, history, cuisine, as well as sparks of innovation. But the lack of democracy, free press, and access to information many people around the world take for granted weighs heavily on perceptions of China,” the report said.

The authors said the nation’s political system “has not kept pace with the nation’s economic dynamism…Opening up at home and abroad would make China a much more attractive nation in the eyes of the world.”

But does “soft power” matter when it comes to economics? According to the report, the “megatrends” of the rapid diffusion of power, including from West to East, the digital revolution and the mass urbanization of the world’s population are making soft power “critical to prosperity, security and international influence.”

“Opportunities still exist for states of every size to achieve their aims, but success depends more than ever on the ability to attract, persuade, and mobilize others,” the report said, including in the pursuit of economic objectives such as export, investment or trade.

For Asia’s emerging giants such as China and India, mastering soft power could be the next great challenge in assuming a global influence that matches their economic might.