A Newly Diplomatic China Courts the World

Excerpted from Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World by Joshua Kurlantzick, to be published in May 2007 by Yale University Press. Copyright©2007 by Yale University Press. Reprinted by permission http://yalebooks.com/kurlantzick/

In October 2003, President George W. Bush arrived in Australia for his first visit Down Under, part of a presidential tour of the Pacific. Bush, who enjoyed a warm relationship with Australian Prime Minister John Howard and planned to scarf down some Australian-style barbecue, seemed excited to be there.

For many American presidents, after all, Australia had served as friendly territory; for more than five decades, Australia had counted itself among the United States’ closest friends, and Canberra and Washington had signed a formal treaty alliance. Australian grunts fought and died alongside American troops in the jungles of World War II’s Pacific theater. During the Cold War, Washington viewed Australia as one of the outposts of freedom in a region threatened by Communism, and in Korea and Vietnam, Australian soldiers once again fought alongside American troops. In the Iraq War, Australian troops were serving with the US military, and Howard repeatedly had refused any opportunities to remove the Australian forces from Iraq.

Bush would find the country familiar. In previous decades, as Australia had abandoned some of its traditional ties to Britain, it had developed closer cultural links to the United States. Australian entertainers like Nicole Kidman and Heath Ledger increasingly migrated to the United States for work, while American film, music, and books came to dominate Australian theaters, radio stations, and reading lists. Students from elite American universities chose Australia as a study-abroad destination, in part because Australia seemed so familiar.

When Bush landed in Australia, though, his enthusiasm must have quickly melted. Even before Bush arrived, thousands of demonstrators planned to greet him with protests in Sydney, Canberra, and other Australian cities against the White House’s supposedly unilateral foreign policies, including its decision to invade Iraq. When Bush touched down, the demonstrations began, including marches on the American embassy, where protesters scuffled with police, and mock trials of the American president for his supposed human rights abuses. Some of the protesters crossed over from anger toward the American president to broader anti-Americanism, condemning US culture and values, and even average Americans as arrogant and disdainful of the world.

Protected by an enormous security cocoon, Bush planned to address the Australian Parliament. But Bush could barely get rolling on his speech—in which he planned to tell the story of how American and Australian World War II troops together saved Australia from Japanese invasion—before Australian senators began heckling him. Two senators from Australia’s Green Party yelled at Bush, screaming that America should follow international law and stop human rights abuses like those at the US prison compound at Guantánamo Bay.

“Respect Australia. . . . If you respect the world’s laws, the world will respect you,” one senator shouted, forcing Bush to halt his speech and gamely quip, “I love free speech” as police pushed the senator-hecklers out of the chamber. Bush completed his speech and left the chamber—where protesters greeted him with a chorus of boos.

Only days later, Australia offered Chinese president Hu Jintao a vastly different welcome, as the Chinese head of state became the first Asian leader to address Australia’s Parliament. While Bush had visited Canberra for less than a day, Hu toured Australia like a hero. Though China’s human rights abuses, like its religious repression and arbitrary trials, dwarf America’s supposed crimes, like Guantánamo detentions, fewer Australians than expected protested against Hu. Even Australian Tibet campaigners, normally angry about China’s treatment of Tibetans, went out of their way to be polite to Hu. One Tibet group purchased a full-page advertisement in a leading Australian newspaper telling Hu, “We welcome you to Australia and wish you a successful and pleasant visit.”

Few members of Parliament disturbed Hu as he unleashed a windy paean to the future of Australian-Chinese ties. Australia’s business community feted the Chinese president at one lavish meal after another, where Australian politicians like Foreign Minister Alexander Downer lauded China, telling audiences, “China’s rise is creating new opportunities. . . . China’s industrial rise is clearly a major boon for the region.”

Downer continued with his fulsome praise, saying, “Australian businesses need to understand . . . the very great goodwill there is in China towards Australia.” Before Hu left, the two nations signed a framework for a future free trade deal.

Australia’s responses to the Bush and Hu visits reflected shifts in Australian public opinion. Only twenty years ago, Australia viewed China as coldly as it greeted American warmly. Australia itself had only begun to allow in waves of Asian immigrants, after trying to maintain its European character under the White Australia policy of immigration. Though China in the mid-1980s was opening its economy, many Australian opinion leaders and average citizens still viewed Cold War–era Beijing as a communist threat, a nation that had sponsored leftist movements in nations around Australia. Australian politicians won domestic support by claiming that Australia should ignore Asia, and Australia traded little with China, still an extremely poor country.

Precisely because Australia has been such a close US ally and so suspicious of China, the Hu visit and the results of a poll taken in early 2005 by the Lowy Institute, a respected Australian research organization, shocked Washington. In the Lowy survey, barely more than half the Australians polled had positive feelings about the United States, though 84 percent viewed Japan positively and 86 percent viewed the United Kingdom positively.

Worse, 57 percent of Australians thought that America’s foreign policies were a potential threat—equivalent to the percentage of Australians worried about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. This despite the fact that in 2002 a massive bomb in Bali, Indonesia, allegedly planted by radical Islamists killed more than two hundred people, most of them Australians.7 In the same Lowy Institute poll, nearly 70 percent of Australians viewed China positively.

Lest anyone think that was an aberration, another study showed that more than 50 percent of Australians supported a proposed free trade agreement with China, while only 34 percent supported such a pact with the United States.

The transformation of China’s image in Australia, from pariah as recently as the 1980s to close friend today, seemed remarkable. Yet the transformation is hardly unique. Since the middle of the 1990s, China has started to become an international power, a nation with global foreign policy ambitions. In fact, China may become the first nation since the fall of the Soviet Union that could seriously challenge the United States for control of the international system.

As Beijing has looked outside its borders, it has altered its image across much of the globe, from threat to opportunity, from danger to benefactor. This transformation has allowed China to suggest to the world that it can be a great power. The sea change has been most dramatic among developing countries, the group of nations with lower standards of living than the United States, Europe, Canada, Japan, and other major industrial powers, though it is noticeable even in some developed nations like South Korea and Australia. But it is in the developing nations where China, itself a developing country, has made major inroads in transforming its image.

This transformation is due to a range of factors, including some beyond Beijing’s control. But it is due largely to China’s growing soft power, which has emerged as the most potent weapon in Beijing’s foreign policy arsenal.

More than a decade ago, the Harvard academic Joseph Nye invented a concept he called soft power—a concept that then entered foreign policy discourse. As Nye explained, “soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others. . . . It is leading by example and attracting others to do what you want.” “If I can get you to do what I want, then I do not have to use carrots or sticks to make you do it,” Nye wrote.

This attractiveness could be called a nation’s “brand,” and it can be conveyed through various means, including a country’s popular and elite culture, its public diplomacy (government-funded programs intended to influence public opinion abroad), its businesses’ actions abroad, international perception of its government’s policies, and the gravitational pull of a nation’s economic strength, among other factors. When Nye coined the term soft power he excluded elements like investment and trade and formal diplomacy and aid—elements he considered more concrete carrots and sticks.

“Soft power is not merely the same as influence,” Nye wrote. “After all, influence can also rest on the hard power of threats or payments.” Nye focused purely on the attractiveness of a nation’s brand, of its values and ideals and norms.

But soft power has changed. In the context of China, both the Chinese government and many nations influenced by China enunciate a broader idea of soft power than did Nye. For the Chinese, soft power means anything outside of the military and security realm, including not only popular culture and public diplomacy but also more coercive economic and diplomatic levers like aid and investment and participation in multilateral organizations—Nye’s carrots and sticks.

Indeed, Beijing offers the charm of a lion, not of a mouse: it can threaten other nations with these sticks if they do not help China achieve its goals, but it can offer sizable carrots if they do.

Soft power can be “high,” directed at elites in a country, or “low,” aimed at the general public. It can stem from governments and nongovernmental actors—businesspeople and Peace Corps volunteers and pop music stars, as well as politicians and leaders. Nongovernmental actors do not necessarily operate in concert with the state, and no state can be said to have a completely coherent foreign policy. In addition, it can sometimes be difficult to separate elements of soft power and elements of hard, military or security power. In China’s case, as we will see, Beijing sometimes uses its soft power to assist in harder goals.

Still, a government’s broad strategies can boost its soft power, and it is possible that an authoritarian government may be better able to direct coordinated strategies than a democratic one. Think about how American policies were perceived abroad and how they made Washington popular across the world after the Second World War, smoothing the way for American soft actors to wield unrivaled influence.

In the 1940s, the United States rebuilt Europe through the Marshall Plan while simultaneously creating a web of international institutions, like the United Nations, to help create a global order that could solve conflicts without resorting to world war. These policies proved highly popular in Europe, and the popularity of the United States helped American companies, from Coca-Cola to McDonald’s, colonize the Continent.

Or look at the reverse—American soft power assisted in the promotion of US policies during the Cold War, when America’s popular appeal made it easier for leaders in democratic Western Europe to follow Washington’s lead. In 1953 the US government created the United States Information Agency to oversee American public diplomacy, and USIA oversaw a radio broadcasting effort, Voice of America, which helped sway foreign opinion, building support for American policies.

During the early years of the Cold War, the US government, along with private foundations and American universities, also created programs for Soviet writers, scientists, artists, and other elites to visit the United States.11 Many of these visitors, awed by America’s cultural freedom, returned to the USSR and became advocates of reform and liberalism efforts promoted by the United States, efforts that eventually brought down the Soviet Union.

American soft power helped win the Cold War in other Eastern Bloc states. As Nye writes, the Czech film director Milos Forman says that when Czechoslovakia’s communist government allowed screenings of the US film Twelve Angry Men, which portrays a negative view of the American judiciary, Czech intellectuals thought, “If that country can make this kind of thing . . . that country must have a pride and must have an inner strength, and must be strong enough and must be free.”

Enthralled by the film, and convinced of America’s moral strength, many Czechs went on to tacitly support America’s Eastern Bloc policies during the Cold War and then become a leading US ally after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

China now can wield this kind of soft power, and may use it to remake the world. China’s policies could make it easier for Chinese actors, from language schools to businesspeople to Chinese pop stars, to have an impact on the ground. And China’s new benign image, in places from Australia to Argentina, will help Beijing execute its foreign policy more successfully.

Since the mid-1990s, the response to Beijing’s soft power has been overwhelming. In Thailand, formally a US ally, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced that China is one of the two “most important countries for Thailand’s diplomacy,” and Thailand is negotiating a partnership with China that could approximate its long alliance with the United States. Local opinion polls show that more than 70 percent of Thais now consider China Thailand’s closest friend.

Across Southeast Asia, in fact, elites and populaces in most nations see China as a constructive actor—and, potentially, as the preeminent regional power. Most scholars define Southeast Asia, a region of some 600 million people, as Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the new nation of East Timor. These countries were not part of British India, which today comprises modern South Asia.

Nor, with the exception of parts of Vietnam, were they part of imperial China, as Mongolia and parts of modern-day Korea were at times.

Still, many Southeast Asian nations share common borders with China, and nearly all have enjoyed long histories of trade and diplomatic interaction with China. During the height of imperial China, the Chinese court sent fifty vessels per year to trade with Southeast Asia. In some Southeast Asian states, like modern-day Singapore, this interaction and Chinese migration left an ethnic Chinese majority. In other Southeast Asian states like Malaysia and the Philippines and Indonesia, where the majority of people come from an ethnic Malay background, the Chinese migrants still constitute a sizable minority of the population.

But the response to China’s soft power extends beyond Southeast Asia. Outside of the United States and Japan, far fewer world leaders than ten years ago question China’s rise. Polls show that people in Africa and Latin America now have more positive feelings toward China than toward the United States, while ten thousand African professionals now head to China each year for postgraduate training. A 2005 British Broadcasting Corporation poll of average people in twenty-two nations across several continents found nearly all believed that China plays a more positive role in the world than does the United States.

China also has been able to use soft power to get what it wants. Nations from Venezuela to Uzbekistan have proven increasingly willing to work with China, whether that means Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez vowing to reorient his massive oil industry toward Beijing and away from America, or Uzbek leader Islam Karimov tossing US forces out of bases in his country. Countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have increasingly cut off even their informal ties to Taiwan, which Beijing claims is a province of China.

This rise coincides with a sharp decline in America’s soft power: in a recent poll of twenty-one nations commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation, only one-third of people polled wanted American values to spread in their nation, a sign of the world’s disdain for the United States. This decline began in the Clinton 1990s and has spiraled further downward in the Bush 2000s, as cuts in American public diplomacy, scandals in American corporations, new restrictions on entering the United States, misguided trade policies, a retreat from multilateral institutions, and human rights abuses in Iraq, Guantánamo Bay, and other places have combined to undermine the allure of America’s ideas, values, and models.

As Andrew Moravcsik, a scholar specializing in European-US relations, admits, “Not only do others not share America’s self-regard, they no longer aspire to emulate the country’s social and economic achievements.”19 In other words, while once it seemed like everyone dreamed of being an American, from Eastern European anticommunists to students in Burma to liberals in China itself, today that dream may be dying.

It is in Southeast Asia where one can most easily notice Beijing’s new soft power. Beijing first concentrated its charm on the region, before broadening its efforts to Africa and Latin America and the Middle East. Such a strategy makes sense. China’s nearest neighborhood, Southeast Asia boasts nearly twenty million ethnic Chinese and has long historical, economic, and cultural ties to China. For a China still flexing its strength as an international power, Southeast Asia presents an opportunity. Perhaps, as a young United States once did in the Western Hemisphere, China could make the region its own—a Chinese Monroe Doctrine for Southeast Asia would make Beijing the major influence over regional affairs and reduce US presence and alliances in the region.20

Because Southeast Asia is the first region where China has unleashed its soft power, it also offers a vital window into how China will act as its influence grows. In some respects, China’s new assertiveness is only natural. Between AD500 and 1500 China often was the most powerful state in the world; at the beginning of the seventeenth century, China had a bigger population than all of Europe. Today Beijing is in many respects regaining the central position in foreign affairs it enjoyed for centuries, and inevitably great powers, whether China or America or the Soviet Union, exert soft power.

“Charm Offensive” traces trace how China has built its global soft power, analyzes how China uses that power, and considers how nations are responding to Beijing. It focuses primarily on China’s wooing of developing nations in Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Central Asia, but occasionally addresses how China woos other key nations in Asia, like Australia, South Korea, or Russia. It does not, however, directly analyze the US-Chinese relationship, or China’s relationship with wealthy nations in Europe or the Middle East.

I first analyze why China has engaged with the world, how changes within China itself led to a more proactive Chinese foreign policy, and what China hopes to gain from this engagement. Then I examine how China actually achieves its goals, observing China’s soft power strategies and tools of influence. Finally, having observed how China sets goals, creates strategies, and utilizes its soft power, I measure the extent of Beijing’s success—and failure—to learn what it may mean for the globe.