World player: Is growing ‘soft power’ the key to China’s influence?
Joshua Kurlantzick has haunted the capitals of Asia, and everywhere he went he found China’s star on the rise. Take Cambodia, for example, which suffered so much from the Maoist-inspired and Beijing-supported predations of the Khmer Rouge. Prime Minister Hun Sen used to call China “the root of all that is evil in Cambodia,” reports Mr. Kurlantzick, but now gushes that Phnom Penh’s relations with Beijing are “entering into the best stage in history.”
The Cambodian Prime Minister studiously avoids mentioning contentious issues like China’s damming of the upper reaches of the Mekong River, which is causing lakes and rivers across his already impoverished land to dry up and the fish catch — a primary source of protein for his poor countrymen — to plummet.
But the Middle Kingdom now has clout on continents and in countries far removed from those it has historically dominated. In the Middle East, China’s new best friend is Iran.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has threatened to destroy Israel in a nuclear holocaust, may not be welcome in most Western capitals, but he is feted in Beijing. Not only was he invited to address Chinese, Russian and Central Asian leaders at a June 2006 meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, he was allowed the rare privilege of addressing the Chinese masses on state television, assuring them that Iran’s and China’s interests were “identical.”
Although Ahmadinejad is a radical Islamist, all too ready to bash America and Israel, he maintains a strict silence on the persecution of his fellow Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.
Further afield, China has made major inroads into Africa and Latin America. Beijing has aggressively courted Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, Mr. Kurlantzick notes, “repeatedly inviting him on state visits to China, upgrading trade ties, and supporting Venezuela’s bid for a seat at the United Nations Security Council.”
Emboldened by China’s support, which he calls a “Great Wall” against American hegemony, Mr. Chavez now claims that Beijing and Caracas have forged a “strategic alliance.” He has vowed to reorient his massive oil industry away from America and toward China.
In fact, one can name a corrupt, dictatorial regime anywhere in the world — and Mr. Kurlantzick names many — and its closest major ally is invariably the People’s Republic of China, all too ready to supply guns, butter or comradely encouragement to defy the United States. But Beijing is not just embracing fellow dictatorships. Developing world democracies, such as Grenada and Dominica, are being drawn into Beijing’s orbit as well.
After this promising start, however, Mr. Kurlantzick stumbles. What he disarmingly calls a “charm offensive” based largely on China’s supposedly growing “soft power” is in reality something far more ominous: It is the deliberate targeting of poor, developing nations with a potent combination of state-driven investment, trade, arms sales and aid (including bribes to high officials and secret subsidies to political parties), with the aim of cementing the allegiance of governing elites to Beijing.
When Harvard academic Joseph Nye invented the term “soft power” a decade ago, he defined it as “leading by example and attracting others to do what you want.” His examples were drawn primarily from the appeal of American ideals of freedom and democracy to peoples languishing in the Soviet bloc.
There is almost no resemblance between that and China’s current efforts to buy influence. While China’s brand of Leninist capitalism and its disdain for human rights may attract favorable notice from dictators, even here China’s new clout is fundamentally based on what Mr. Nye called “the hard power of threats or payments.”
That is to say, it is in return for football stadiums, public works projects, exchange programs, generous aid packages, not to mention support in controversies with the United States and U.S.-led international organizations, that leaders in dozens of countries are cozying up to China. We are witnessing an exercise in hard power, not soft.
This conceptual confusion aside, Mr. Kurlantzick offers several useful case studies of how China operates on the ground to expand its influence. In Cambodia, when the World Bank threatened to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of assistance because of Phnom Penh’s “rampant corruption and its crackdown on civil liberties,” China rode to the rescue with an April 2006 offer of $600 million worth of grants and loans.
In Angola, home of the secondlargest oil deposits in Africa, the International Monetary Fund tried to force the government “to agree to provisions that would slash graft and improve economic management.” Again China stepped in, offering a package of loans and credits worth up to 6 billion, on condition that Chinese firms carry out the reconstruction of the oil infrastructure. Privileged access to Angola’s oil resources may well be another, unpublicized, condition.
Mr. Kurlantzick ends by contrasting America’s idealistic promotion of democracy, the rule of law and human rights (along with, it must be said, more unsavory things such as population control and gender feminism) with China’s supposedly more pragmatic approach to international relations.
But China has its ideals as well. And its ideal, readers of “Charm Offensive” will come away convinced, is a world that pays tribute to China’s preeminence and sends its resources to Chinese ports, a world in which corrupt oligarchies rule and human rights are relegated to the dustbin of history. Such is the naivete of our current efforts to make China a “responsible stakeholder” in the existing international order.
Steven Mosher is president of the Population Research Institute and the author of “Hegemon: China’s Plan to Dominate Asia.”