The Panda's Hard-line on Soft Power

Over the past week, two potentially radical announcements have come from People's Republic of China and while the first might draw frowns from International Organizations and leaders across the world, the second has left the world a little perplexed. The first announcement saw China abolish the term limit allowing Xi Jinping a third term as incumbent with potentially more to come. The second announcement slashed the PLA's (People's Liberation Army) strength to below 1 million for the first time in its history. Although the cut is aimed at reform and restructuring the PLA, it comes at a time when China has actively been pursuing "Soft Power" as a viable alternative for Diplomatic Dominance.

What is Soft Power?

In 1990, with the Cold War over, Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye argued that non-violent forms of co-option could complement, if not replace, physical coercion in international relations. For Nye, cultural attraction, political ideology, and a strong presence in international institutions were effective means of encouraging others to follow. Both hard power and soft power are about getting one country to change the behaviour of another country. Hard power relies on coercion so it's force or the threat of force or paying somebody to do something or using economic sanctions while in contrast, soft power is about using attraction and persuasion to change behaviour of others and sometimes it's actually about changing or shaping their preferences and which ultimately brings about a change in behaviour.

It would be very interesting to talk about the difference between hard power and soft power because the libertarians and classical liberals are almost blind to Soft Power that's pervasive in liberal societies. It exists outside of the state apparatus and shapes our preferences based on lists created by non-state actors that engage in censorship and propaganda. It is massive and all pervasive and yet the people who live under the rule of this soft power find it almost invisible. We have a society where the ability to shape people's consciousness and to shape politics and political policy is controlled by unaccountable elites in academia and the media and so forth. That is something I think we really need to address because that's where the classical liberals and libertarians are blind to the real forces that rule us.

These days, every country cares deeply about its “soft power.” Not long ago, scholars thought power had to be “hard.” The German sociologist Max Weber argued that what defined a state was its “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” to control territory, natural resources, and people. But today, military might alone isn’t enough for a state to wield influence. America’s films, foods, music, and technologies were no less important to its global leadership than its guns, bombs, and warships. Since Nye first argued for the importance of "soft power," its components have multiplied. Money, not McDonalds, is probably the main means of persuasion today. Government-funded aid programs, foreign direct investment, and private philanthropy are all used to sway others softly.


In a sense, Nye was simply reviving a concept seemingly forgotten after a century of hot and cold wars. Long before Nye theorized “soft power,” China was using it to build an empire. Confucian scholars argued that rulers’ moral and ethical positions were the key components of their strength, and that the only way to expand territory was to convince others to "want” to follow. Today it is harder to know if countries are getting their money’s worth when they promote their country’s “brand” abroad. According to the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, the top five “soft power” states in 2017 were France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, and Canada. China ranked 25th, below Poland and above Russia. The US, which still spends heavily on “soft power,” has lost much of it since the election of President Donald Trump. America was in the top spot last year, and it’s hard to see how, given Trump’s reckless criticism of allies and withdrawal from key international accords, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement, stays in the top five in 2018.

In the recent decade the presence of Asian countries has become increasingly global and dominant particularly for Japan, Singapore, South Korea and China. Japan has taken great efforts to create synergy between its traditional roots and pop culture with its government actively promoting its cultural attractions overseas similarly Korea's successful integration of tradition and pop culture propagated through the digital export of its creative industries has built Korea's soft power influence .China on the other hand has a great display of deep culture in history. Singapore the little red dot with a big global presence has earned recognition in its education government and engagement but what can be done to increase soft power in other emerging Asian countries like India?

However while having diverse cultural assets and charismatic politicians can temporarily raise a country's soft power it has to go beyond these individual factors before a sustainable growth and soft power can be achieved in today's globalized world as seen through the rise of these Asian countries that are becoming increasingly significant in today's global economy much is attributed to the influence of their soft power it leads us to the conclusion then that increasing a country's soft power can greatly boost its economy and empower its diplomatic ties with others developing countries can definitely learn from these methods to further strengthen their soft power.

US vs China

The US is a powerful nation partly because of its military; its resources and bases outnumber anyone else's in the world but American soft power is another big factor that has the ability to attract nations to a common goal without using coercion or payments. The US has more embassies consulates and missions abroad than any other nation and it has more than 60 treaty allies. This is because the US spends time money and effort on global diplomacy. One of the most cited examples of this happened shortly after World War two that's when the US enacted the Marshall Plan in 1948 which dumped 12 billion dollars into rebuilding Europe after it was ravaged by the war spending money on countries destroyed by the war bought a lot of goodwill and some solid trading partners.

Today fighting climate change is another way to build alliances through soft power, however the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate Accord pulling out of its leadership role on the issue leaving China to fill the power vacuum and President Donald Trump's plans for the federal budget will cut into programs meant to expand US soft power which include the East-West Centre, The United States Institute of Peace, US-African Development Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson Center. Cutting these programs might save some money but it could hamper US soft power in places like Africa where the US is increasingly competing for influence against China. For too many decades, America has sent money, soldiers and drones to the sunburned stretches of the Sahara and the Sahel. America’s policy makers have, for too long, seen Africa as either a magnet for misery or a source of terror threats. Meanwhile, China’s influence is the region has surged—without sending arms or aid. Instead, the Chinese see North Africa as a market. The Asian power has invested in roads, bridges, pipelines and drilling operations and put itself in line with the Africans striving to join the world’s fastest growing middle class.

Disaster relief from the US often improves how other countries view Americans. Japan had more favourable views when the US gave the millions in aid after major natural disasters. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle like foreign aid so gutting it hasn't been a very popular move but foreign aid isn't the only source of soft power; non-governmental organizations, Hollywood and Silicon Valley can also generate soft power each helps build cultural or technological ties between the US and other nations but even those centers of influence could be damaged by America's growing unpopularity around the globe and by the decay of US soft power.

Panda Diplomacy

Some well-known world leaders including Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel have been photographed with Pandas which only goes to show the considerable diplomatic responsibility these gentle creatures carry on their furry shoulders. Pandas are China's biggest soft power abroad and are given by Beijing as loans to its allies. The right to host a panda is hard earned as Beijing restricts them to a rather exclusive club and China uses the Panda as its ambassador to reflect Beijing's close and smooth relationship with the host country. Such is the power of the Panda that the Chinese President himself signs all loan requests and charges 1 million dollars every year for each of the pandas it sends abroad with an additional four hundred thousand dollars for every newborn or cub.

China began using the Panda as a tool of diplomacy in the 1950s the Chinese considered the Panda as a national treasure giving it the status equivalent of the British royal family in the country and as Beijing rose in the global pecking order it began using the Panda as a tool sometimes even to express its displeasure. In 2010 China recalled the widely popular giant panda Tai Shan from Washington DC refusing a request from the National zoo officials to extend his stay for another year in retaliation to President Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama at the White House and the decision by the United States government to sell arms to Taiwan. Researchers at the University of Oxford have noticed the correlation between panda loans and China's international trade deals. In 2010 China realized that it needed to find more Salmon, however, their traditional trade partner Norway had been kind enough to award the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident so instead China turned to Scotland which also produced salmon and they got into a trade deal and a panda was sent to the Edinburgh Zoo. China it considers pandas as kind of another arm of diplomacy in the same way that in the event of a diplomatic spat one country might recall its ambassador or might impose economic sanctions.

Soft Power Dominion?

In a world fearful of China’s rise, Chinese diplomats have been busy proving the nations' cultural economic, academic and diplomatic strides. China’s soft-power strategy focuses on promoting its culture to give the impression that its foreign policy is unusually benign. This has predominantly been done in an attempt to export its approach to development through the One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR), which encourages regional connectivity. This initiative is clearly a vehicle for soft power as it will promote economic integration between Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. The OBOR is not the only evidence of China’s willingness to cooperate. It has also been pursuing its own trade agenda through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

“The people of all countries expect nothing less from us, and this is our unshakable responsibility as leaders of our times,” announced Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 2017 Davos World Economic Forum. It implied China’s willingness to step into the leadership position to expand global trade that the US had vacated. President Xi Jinping’s call for expanding globalisation and unity in the fight against climate change at the Davos World Economic Forum is the culmination of 10 years of China’s effort to build its public diplomacy and this is where the irony is glaringly apparent.

Soft power is not coerced. It comes from within society – not the government. Tracking China's initiatives, it is not difficult to say that China’s efforts to control the China narrative remain an increasingly fraught and distant goal. Nye wrote that China does not understand that soft power initiatives are rendered impotent by oppression and coercion, whether domestically or overseas. Ideology robs China of the ability to evoke a level of charisma capable of appealing to the rest of the world and reveals a deep frustration at being unable to control criticism through the gentler means of persuasion and attraction. But Nye is right, although money, as the Beatles noted, can’t buy love, it can certainly buy compliance.

Until the ideological divide can be bridged, China will continue to struggle with the age-old question of how to present itself to the world.

#china #us #economics

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