Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

Culture and Commerce: China's Soft Power in Thailand

Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

Culture and Commerce: China's Soft Power in Thailand

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Recent literature shows that the implementation of the Confucius Institute (CI) programme is part of China's soft power policy and aims to raise the nation's international profile along with its increasing economic role in the world, despite the controversy about China's cultural expansion abroad serving its own national interest (Guo, 2008; Lo and Pan, 2014; Leung and Du Cros, 2014; Gil, 2015). Evidently, the CI debate has drawn scholarly and critical attention on how China's soft power should be perceived.

Developed by Joseph Nye, the term "soft power" describes the ability to shape the preference of others through appeal and attraction. Whereas hard power is exercised through military and economic forces, soft power relies on the attractiveness of a nation's culture, political values and foreign policies (Nye, 2004: 5, 11). In the case of China, officials and scholars went beyond Nye's traditional definition of soft power and interpreted the concept in their own, broader terms.1 Kurlantzick (2007: 6) notes that Chinese soft power includes more coercive economic and diplomatic levers such as aid, investment and participation in multilateral organisations. Lai and Lu (2012: 30) broaden the term "soft power" to include multilateral diplomacy, economic diplomacy and "good neighbour" policy. In a speech given to members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), former President Hu Jintao and current President Xi Jinping highlighted several methods by which China could exert influence through soft power.2 The concept of soft power proved highly popular among Chinese leaders, scholars and journalists, as can also be judged from its prevalence in Chinese media (Li, 2008: 287). It therefore played a crucial role in shaping China's international political strategy.

Despite the significance of this notion in the case of China, the context that either generates or hinders the growth of soft power is understudied. Ferguson (2003) noted that not all non-traditional forces, such as cultural and commercial goods, can influence world affairs. For instance, it does not make sense to say that children all over the Islamic world love the United States just because of American fast food and pop culture. In this sense, Li Mingjiang (2011: 1-18) challenges the received idea about how the resources of power are used: culture, ideology and values can be used for coercion, and military and economic strength can be used for attraction and appeal. In this light, the study of the economic, political, social and cultural context of a host country should be encouraged as a crucial step to better understanding and assessing China's soft power.

Drawing on empirical data including academic literature, official and media reports, and interviews with the people involved, this article examines the growing presence of China on a global scale, with a particular focus on the context of Thailand - an influential player in Southeast Asia and an ally of the United States - as a case study of Chinese diplomatic practices. The paper also argues that the increasing Chinese influence in Thailand is also driven by the historical background of close Sino-Thai relations, by Thailand's economic interests as well as by the role of ethnic Chinese communities in Thailand. In other words, the context of Thailand as a host country facilitates the existence and functioning of China's soft power. To detail the environment that enabled the considerable progress of China's soft power, this article begins with the historical canvas that shaped Sino-Thai relations. In a second stage, it examines the expansion of China's soft power due to non-governmental or people-to-people activities (e.g., tourism), and the increasing use of policy tools (such as education and media) for public diplomacy. Finally, it presents a few challenges and expressions of China's soft power in Thailand, strongly reflecting the role of Chinese governmental organisations and their ties with Thailand's ethnic Chinese communities. …

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