China: An old hand at soft power

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Our Associate Professor of International Relations, Dr Rosita Dellios poses that Beijing’s approach of resolving difficulties before they arise is helping the region realise its human and economic potential.

Her writing was featured on the Asia & The Pacific Policy Society (APPS) Policy Forum.

Rosita Dellios

China: an old hand at soft power – Policy Forum

The West may worry that China is unwilling or unable to solve global problems. But if you look more closely, Beijing has a knack of solving problems before they arise.

Despite China’s rapid rise and its plans to build ‘silk roads’ of development from Asia through to Africa and the Middle East, it is still regularly dismissed as unfit for global leadership – neither willing nor able to solve global problems. The reasons for this vary, but much rests with China being perceived as more foe than friend. The absence of multi-party democracy puts China at odds with prevailing international norms. Many among the West’s opinion-makers do not believe the world has anything to learn from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), or that a CCP-ruled China could find legitimacy in the international order.

Lately, this sentiment has been expressed through the popular concept of ‘soft power’ – the power of attraction rather than coercion. An article by China specialist David Shambaugh in Foreign Affairs investigated China’s soft-power credentials and found them severely lacking. Despite admitting that China had pledged to invest US$1.25 trillion worldwide by 2025, he finds that it is to no avail as ‘’soft power cannot be bought.’’  It would be interesting to hear what the beneficiaries of this investment would have to say.

Shambaugh mentions Joseph Nye, the political scientist who coined the term ‘soft power’ (but did not invent the condition); and Nye himself quotes Shambaugh’s findings that China spends about US$10 billion a year in ‘’external propaganda’’, but still lacks trust and respect.

This is ironic as China itself is an old hand at soft power. ‘’Come and be transformed’’ (lai hua) was the motto of the Celestial Empire with its civilisational attributes that included trade and economic incentives. As to how soft power may be used to solve problems, China’s best known classical strategist, Sun Tzu, observed that whoever ‘’excels at resolving difficulties does so before they arise.’’ In the military sphere, he advised that it was best to win a war before it reached the battlefield. The Daoist concept of wu-wei – or ‘actionless action’ – is also relevant here. It is better for China’s critics to belittle and diminish Beijing’s achievements, which are nonetheless real even if not readily recognised, than to engage in a dramatic clash…READ MORE

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