World player: Is grow­ing ‘soft power’ the key to China’s in­flu­ence?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.”

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