Byline: Fareed Zakaria (Write the author at email@example.com.)
If you want to know which way the breeze is blowing in Asia, check out a bookstore in Hanoi. The two I went to while visiting there last week were stocked with the usual stuff--the writings of Ho Chi Minh and General Giap--and many signs of the new Vietnam, which meant books on business and management plus a seemingly legal Vietnamese translation of Hillary Clinton's memoirs. Prominently displayed along with all these wares were the collected speeches of Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
The Vietnamese have no particular love for China. One official there, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the relationship, said to me, "We are clear-eyed. China has occupied Vietnam for 1,000 years. It has invaded us 13 times since then. But China is a huge presence, our biggest exporter." And everyone I spoke to in Hanoi agreed that the Chinese were handling them with great dexterity. Before arriving in Vietnam I had been in Tokyo, during Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's state visit, and I heard a similar refrain from the Japanese. Wen finessed the many points of tension between the two countries and instead accentuated the positive--their booming economic ties.
Talk of China's "soft power" has grown over the last year. But what I saw last week was not evidence of soft power in the sense Harvard professor Joseph Nye meant when he coined the term--the attractiveness of a country and its values. Few people in Asia are actively pining for "the Chinese Dream" because it's not really clear what that is--and to the extent that there is one it sounds suspiciously like the American Dream. Really, it's China's hard power that is on the rise. Beijing has become remarkably adept at using its political and economic muscle in a patient, low-key and highly effective manner.
China's diplomacy emphasizes its core strengths--a long-term perspective, a nonpreachy attitude and strategic decision-making that isn't bogged down by internal opposition or bureaucratic paralysis. Over the last decade, for example, China has greatly improved its historically tense relations with Southeast Asia. It's taken a more accommodating political line, provided generous aid packages (often far outstripping those provided by the United States) and moved speedily on a free-trade deal with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Japan wanted to cut a similar deal but has dithered, racked by power struggles between political and bureaucratic factions in Tokyo. The United States can't even begin such a conversation with ASEAN because we will not talk to …