Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Has Beijing Started to Bare Its Teeth? China's Tapping of Soft Power Revisited

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Has Beijing Started to Bare Its Teeth? China's Tapping of Soft Power Revisited

Article excerpt

This study addresses the issue of the effectiveness of China's softpower. Focusing on China's management of softpower over the past five years, the article distinguishes between the strategic and tactical levels to measure soft-power efficacy, with the strategic level judged to be more successful. Overall, China's policy has well served the interests of it and the world. As long as China perceives that the benefits of peaceful integration with the international system outweigh the risks and costs of revisionist behavior, it will hold on to its policy of tapping softpower and continue on the course of a peaceful rise. KEYWORDS: soft-power-tapping policy, developing-country foreign policy, peaceful rise.

The only choice for China under the current international situation was to rise peacefully, namely, to develop by taking advantage of the peaceful international environment, and at the same time, to maintain world peace through its development.

-former Central Party School vice president Zheng Bijian, 2003

Five years ago I published an article that discussed China's efforts to exploit softpower (Zhang 2007). I examined China's rationale for developing softpower, analyzed China's strategies and measures, and evaluated the consequences of China's efforts. I concluded that when a rapidly rising great power like China devoted itself to cultivating its softpower, it could only benefit it and the world.

However, since the appearance of the article, new questions have arisen about China's future outlook. China's hard-power assets have become significantly stronger, as evidenced by its expanded economy and foreign currency reserves, impressive space programs, and rapidly modernizing weapon systems. These developments have engendered widespread anxieties about China's true intentions and willingness to continue with past policies. In particular, a series of events involving China since 2009 have given rise to wide speculation that Beijing is discarding its past "smile diplomacy" and is becoming increasingly aggressive (Lee 2010; Blumenthal 2011; Kurlantzick 2011; Sabahi 2011). Added to such speculation are some scholars' doubts about the efficacy and accomplishments of Beijing's softpower (Liang 2011).

While all these doubts are sound to varying degrees, most of these critical scholars suffer from either narrow interpretation of Joseph Nye's soft-power concept or a lack of empirical robustness. They overemphasize Beijing's weak "attractiveness" in areas such as human rights and an authoritarian political system, revealing a bias in judging Beijing's achievements at the tactical level. This narrow focus prevents them from observing how Beijing's management of softpower has given it a proactive agendasetting ability that allows it to achieve much more important goals at the strategic level. These goals include working toward a stable international environment that facilitates its continuous rise and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s hold on political power.

Revisiting China's management of softpower over the past five years, this study identifies Beijing's grand strategy, studies its tapping of softpower, evaluates the efficacy of Beijing's softpower endeavor at the strategic and tactical levels, and ponders Beijing's future policy course. This exercise helps us reassess the continuing validity of China's original rationales for exploiting softpower and improves our understanding of the course of China's development, its future intentions, and possible changes in Chinese foreign policy that may impact the lives of billions of people, inside and outside China.

The next section examines the role and significance of softpower for China's grand strategy in the contemporary era. Following that is a survey of the debate within China over how it should wield its rapidly growing capabilities. I then review China's current domestic and foreign policies and weigh whether Beijing still embraces a policy of tapping softpower. …

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