China's Soft Power; Dwight H. Perkins Reviews Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World

By Perkins, Dwight H. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

China's Soft Power; Dwight H. Perkins Reviews Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World


Perkins, Dwight H., Harvard International Review


Much is made today of China's booming economy. US defense secretaries point to China's rising military power and question why China feels the need to build its military might so rapidly. US diplomats work with Chinese diplomats in an effort to defuse the North Korean nuclear crisis. These measures are covered extensively in the world press. In contrast, China's global involvement in a number of other areas tends to receive comparatively little attention from either the press or from US and European political leaders and scholars.

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Joshua Kurlantzick, who has reported from Asia for journals such as US News and World Report and The Economist, focuses his book, Charm Offensive, on a broad array of China's activities beyond its borders. The book emphasizes what Kurlantznick calls China's "soft power," but he uses the term differently from how Joseph Nye, the originator of the term, defines it. Nye uses the term to refer to the influence that nations exert beyond their borders through everything from their music and cinema to their role as models of freedom and democratic governance. On the other hand, economic and military power represent "hard power."

By contrast, Kurlantzick includes China's trade and overseas investment in his definition of soft power. Furthermore, while much of the United States' soft power comes from the activities of private individuals and media portrayals of the nature of US society, this book is focused on Chinese government activities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. As Kurlantzick points out, the United States has squandered much of its soft power through its misguided policies in the Middle East and its penchant for unilateralism, while Chinese influence has steadily grown.

But for what purpose is China using its charm offensive? The days when China's interests beyond its borders focused on revolutionary movements against established governments are long gone. Nor in any immediate sense is China threatened by possible military attack from a superpower, as it was in the 1970s from the USSR or in the 1960s from US military involvement in Vietnam. China's response to those perceived threats was not to expand its diplomatic efforts and win friends around the world. Instead, China built a "people's militia" designed to fight a guerilla war on an unprecedented scale, and it invested vast sums to move industry into its mountainous interior where it might resist potential air attacks.

China's current charm offensive focuses on winning friends abroad to achieve several concrete objectives. Its top objective, after securing its territory from external attack, is to isolate Taiwan and eventually achieve the island's political reintegration with the Chinese mainland. China relies on a variety of economic and diplomatic efforts to isolate Taiwan. In Africa and Latin America, China holds out the prospects of investment, foreign aid, and its large domestic market. Taiwan also offers foreign aid and technical assistance to those who maintain diplomatic ties with it, but it has nothing comparable to the lure of the booming Chinese mainland market.

Beyond Taiwan, China's overseas objectives involve a major economic and diplomatic effort to secure natural resources like oil and copper for its booming economy. This involves everything from securing long-term contracts with resource suppliers to directly investing in and owning these suppliers. The diplomatic component, among other actions, involves befriending resource-rich nations that the United States and others see as pariahs. With its policy of "non-interference" in the domestic affairs of other nations, China counters efforts by the United States and others to isolate countries such as Sudan, Iran, and Zimbabwe. China also cultivates friendships with nations such as Venezuela that currently have unfriendly relations with the United States, but in doing so, it is careful not to appear to divert oil supplies from the US market. …

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