China Dream: soft power served on hard?

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--Mohammed Saqib, Secretary General, India China Economic and Cultural Council, New Delhi


In the current century, countries are increasingly focusing on projection of benign country images. Such images are critical not only for gaining access to new markets but also for building partnerships for addressing mutual benefits and concerns.

Joseph Nye, an eminent International Relations Scholar, in his seminal book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, describes 'soft Power' as 'the ability of a nation to structure a situation so that other nations develop preferences or define their interests in ways consistent with one's nation.' He also argued co-optive power emerges from soft power and immaterial sources such as 'cultural and ideological attraction as well as the rules and institutions of international regimes.' As a result, the difference between hard and soft power relies on their relative materiality as soft power is mostly based on intangibles such as the power of example. Soft power is therefore the ability to modify other states' preferences because of their perception of you. Thus, Soft power is ultimately to be measured in terms of global public sentiments expressing attraction toward, and a desire to emulate, a state and its people; it is more than just admiration for the pace of economic growth and modernization.

On the contrary, Gilbert Doctorow argues that soft power is a byproduct of wealth and success. To quote him "America's undisputed power of attraction to peoples around the world (when it is not invading hapless countries) has more to do with its per capita GDP than with any other factor." It explains the passion of ambitious people everywhere to send their children to American colleges. It explains the popularity of Hollywood and pop culture and much more. There is nothing wrong with this; it is all understandable in human terms. But it has relatively little to do with vibrant civil society or any beacon of human rights radiating from Washington, DC. In this respect, the best thing a country can do to further their soft power is to get richer quick. China has already achieved it to certain extent.

Like major Western countries, China has been aggressively promoting its soft power. Soft power has been an important buzzword in Beijing for some time. However, unlike other countries, Soft Power is conceived as government PR in China. It is up to the government to decide what China is and then market it abroad. This marketing push is seen as necessary because of the lack of international Chinese brands and cultural exports, which have proved the best soft-power assets of countries like the U.S., the UK, or even South Korea. The role of non-government players is seen as negligible in promoting Soft power.

The initiatives of Chinese soft power have been seen with a suspicion and generated debate in certain circles in the West on, what soft power is to China, what China is doing, and on China's motives for doing it, rather than accepting is as a normal aims of soft power. Which include being given face on the international stage, being shown respect, and being treated like a great country. It wants its policies and actions to be viewed sympathetically, and to conduct its affairs without foreign interference. It wants to draw less criticism and suspicion than it tends to today, and to attract more friendly support on issues it cares about. It wants less bad press. And, of course, it wants to open up overseas markets for Chinese products and have freer access to commercial opportunities abroad.

The Chinese political leadership as well as its institutions and agencies have made planned efforts to bring about a change in negative perceptions in its neighbourhood which has several territorial disputes and instances of frictions leading to an image of China as an aggressive regional power, coupled with negative notions of its curbs on freedom of expression and individual rights.

Given its rich cultural heritage and global appeal, it is only natural that culture emerges as a strategic tool in China's efforts. This is more so in its neighbourhood where the footprint of Chinese culture already exists, as also Chinese diaspora. Beijing's soft power instruments range from culture to economic engagement. Official pronouncements have been accompanied by matching initiatives. Instituting confidence-building measures (CBMs), resolving existing border disputes, reassuring neighbours about benign intentions, enhanced economic engagement along with cultural outreach characterize Beijing's soft power diplomacy in Asia.

China is making similar efforts in South Asia which is steadily emerging as a strategic priority. Economic assistance has been a key component of China's engagement in South Asia. China has been quick to offer development support to several parts of Southeast and South Asia, where multilateral aid and development assistance from major global donors has not been forthcoming.

Despite dedicated efforts in cultural diplomacy, China has had limited success in ameliorating its image as an aggressive regional power which discourages freedom of expression and individual rights. Its Confucius Institutes are often viewed as vehicles for achieving deeper strategic objectives in the garb of cultural diplomacy.

The paper discusses the conceptual relationship between hard and soft power with context to China. Does a rising power need to develop both hard power and soft power resources to attain major power status? Do both dimensions of power substitute each other or do they overlap in a complementary way? Does China today fill these two prerequisites? For instance, the high economic growth rates have certainly increased China's international attractiveness; does economic power feed China's soft power? Does China exert an attractive influence over much of the public that it is trying to court?

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