Book Review: Soft Power: China’s Emerging Strategy in International Politics (Part 1)


Book: China’s Emerging Strategy in International Politics

Edited by: Mingjiang Li

Publisher: Lexington Books

Year: 2009

SAU Library Bar Code: 6130

Soft power is “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” The soft power of a country has three primary sources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority). Despite the prevalent use of the term soft power since the 1990s, the complex relationship between hard power and soft power still needs to be scrutinized and better understood.

The discourse of soft power was single-handedly started in 1990 by Joseph Nye. However, in the 1990s, the notion of soft power did not figure into Chinese foreign policy. It is widely acknowledged that Nye’s initial purpose for inventing the concept of “soft power” is to counter the prevailing pessimism about the decline of American power at the end of the Cold War with the disappearance of a defining Soviet threat.

In Nye’s words, soft power occurs,

“… when one country gets other countries to want what it wants.” Further, the exercise of soft power involves setting the agenda and structuring the situations in world politics “as to get others to change in particular cases.”

The discourse of China’s soft power had taken on its own life. It was claimed in International Herald Tribune back in 2004 that China was becoming a “cultural magnet” for many people in Asia.  New York Times asserted, also in 2004, that “China moves to eclipse the U.S. appeal in South Asia.” Back in October, 2007 a conference was held in Singapore under rubric of “The Rise of China and Its Soft Power”. The present book is the reflection of that conference. The most frequent argument is that soft power has to be part of “comprehensive power” that a major nation is expected to possess.  Soft power has become a very popular concept in international affairs. Ever since Joseph Nye coined it in 1990 in his book Bound to Lead, the term has frequently appeared in government policy papers, academic discussions, and the popular media.

Soft power lies in the soft use of power to increase a state’s attraction, persuasiveness, and appeal. If a nation state (or any other actor) makes good use of its resources of power through various domestic cultural, economic, and political programs to bring well-being to its own nationals, it will produce a lot of admiration from other countries. If a state uses its resources of power in a prudent, cautious, accommodating, and considerate approach in its relations with other states and plays a leading role in providing public goods to international society, it will surely win respect, amity, and positive reciprocity from other states.

In recent years, both Chinese officials and scholars have gone to great lengths to explore soft power and its implications for China’s foreign affairs. The popularity of soft power in China perhaps reflects the widespread excitement of the Chinese people about the pending rise of their nation as well as their sensitivity to anything that may have an impact on China’s ascendance. Following Nye’s conceptual framework, Chinese officials and scholars have shed much light on the sources, potential, practice and objectives of soft power in the Chinese context.

Concerning the relation between hard power and soft power, some Chinese analysts seem to be more willing than Nye to emphasize the inseparability of hard power and soft power. They argue, for example: “Soft power and hard power are mutually complementary to each other. Soft power can facilitate the growth of hard power; whereas hard power can demonstrate and support the increase of soft power.” Another study is critical of Nye’s dichotomy of hard power and soft power, arguing that, depending on the context, any source of power can be both hard and soft, and that China’s soft power is best illustrated in the “China model”, multilateralism, economic diplomacy and good-neighborly policy.

Excessive or inappropriate use of hard power can lead to the decline of a state’s soft power. A good example of this is the war in Iraq.  Joseph Nye has been relentlessly criticizing the American war in Iraq as weakening U.S. soft power: (p.5)

‘The four-week war in Iraq was a dazzling display of America’s hard military power that removed a dangerous dictator, but it did not solve the problem of terrorism. It was also costly in terms of America’s soft power to attract others. In the aftermath of the war, polling by the Pew Research Center showed a dramatic decline in the popularity of the United States even in countries like Spain and Italy whose governments had supported the war.’

Former Party Chief and President Hu Jintao highlighted soft power in his political report to the 17th Party Congress in October 2007, stressing the urgent need to build China’s cultural soft power to meet domestic needs and increasing international challenges.  The 2007 World Economic Forum held in Dalian, a coastal city in China’s Liaoning Province, addressed the issue of China’s soft power.

The Chinese discourse on soft power has mainly focused on its sources and potential utility in Chinese foreign strategy. The mainstream assessment of the state of China’s soft power by Chinese analysts is that soft power is still a weak link in China’s pursuit for stronger comprehensive national power. It has lagged significantly behind the growth of the country’s hard power. Many strategists maintain that China is still not sophisticated in incorporating soft power into its strategic planning.

Nevertheless, soft power is no longer an alien concept for top Chinese political leaders. The political report to the 16th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress in 2002, for instance, points out that, “… in today’s world, culture intertwines with economics and politics, demonstrating a more prominent position and role in the competition for comprehensive national power.”

Some international observers seem not to be worried about China’s soft power. It is believed that China’s capability to influence the rest of the world through soft power is restrained by a lack of agreement on what constitutes Chinese culture and values. Fareed Zakaria, for instance, claims that “China has used soft power only in the sense that it has exercised its power softly. It does this consciously to show that it is not a bully.”

The 4 parts and 13 chapters of this book seek to present an in-depth examination of China’s soft power potential, the perspectives among Chinese elites on soft power.

A comprehensive understanding of the importance of soft power in China’s international politics is how the concept is discussed among the Chinese elite.  Unlike Joseph Nye’s primary focus on the efficacy of soft power in achieving foreign policy goals, Chinese discourse frequently refers to a domestic context and evinces a mission for domestic purposes. However, soft power, as expounded by Chinese analysts, is still a weak link in China’s pursuit of comprehensive national power and largely perceived as a tool for defensive purposes, including cultivating a better image of China to the outside world, correcting foreign misperceptions of China, and fending off Western cultural and political inroads in China.

(To be continued …)


Mohammad Rubaiyat Rahman (SAU President Scholarship Awardee) is studying LL.M at SAU, India.


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