Smart power vs subtle power

By David Gosset
0 CommentsPrint E-mail China Daily, April 15, 2011
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The United States administration has rebranded the country's foreign policy around the grand concept of "smart power", an expression which envelops great confidence if not self-satisfaction, and which, to a certain extent, presupposes a strategic dominance.

But if it wants to maintain a real capacity to influence world affairs, the West should not assume a position of intellectual superiority. Instead, it should try to comprehend what makes the success of the new global forces. While the US public diplomacy apparatus works to persuade the world of its benevolent "smart power", China is quietly reshaping the global village with the effectiveness of its "subtle power".

In the first half of the 21st century, the major redistribution of power and the great game of influence are obviously taking place between Washington and Beijing.

At the end of each decade which followed Deng Xiaoping's opening-up, all China watchers had to formulate the same observation: The gain of Beijing's relative power in the international system anticipated at the beginning of the period had always been underestimated.

Fundamentally, the analysts have been unable to assess and anticipate accurately China's momentum because they were preoccupied by what they viewed as China's structural inadequacies and did not comprehend Beijing's "subtle power" or its extraordinary adaptability. After all, Chinese leaders are not only in charge of the People's Republic of China, but responsible for the renaissance of a civilization state as well.

While China's re-emergence corrects a development imbalance triggered by Europe's industrial revolution in the 18th century - Kenneth Pomeranz's "great divergence" - the re-entry of one-fifth of mankind on the center stage of history also marks the beginning of a period where different types of modernity have to coexist. Beyond more tangible economic or political multipolarity, one should pay great attention to a global contention of ideas without complacency or condescension, and realize that China's role in the global intellectual debate will be proportionate to the depth of its ancient civilization.

The unique combination of size, speed and scope, which characterizes China's transformation, has no equivalent in world history. At the end of last month, Justin Yifu Lin, World Bank vice-president, declared at the China Economic Development Forum in Hong Kong that China's economy will be the world's biggest by 2030; in 1978, China's economic output was less than 2 percent of the world total.

When Goldman Sachs made its first forecasts for the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies in 2003, experts said China would overtake the US by 2041. But now they mention 2027 as being the year of the highly symbolic shift. Standard Chartered has announced that the change would take place by 2020.

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