Labour Regimes in Vietnam and China: Parallels and Contrasts

I have previously written about the labour relations crisis in China. Vietnam makes an interesting comparison to the Chinese situation, both for the broad similarities of the labour history of the two countries and because, beneath the surface, there are a host of subtle differences.

As the rural migrant workforces that have fuelled the economic development of both countries become increasingly organised and assertive, the question of if and how they may be effectively represented becomes increasingly urgent. In some cases, Vietnam may have a substantial advantage.

Central Unions

Both China and Vietnam have strong central unions with a monopoly on official labour representation, the All-China Union of Trade Federations (ACFTU) and the Vietnamese General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) respectively. Both are trying to drive up membership. Both are also limited by national leaderships which fear empowering grassroots movements, especially labour. Thus, unions are formed in collaboration with management and initially staffed with management appointees, typically the director of human resources.

To quote one VGCL official, approaching workers directly “would infringe the rights of the employer.” Although the Vietnamese Labour Code suggests that Vietnamese unions may form organically and apply for VGCL membership, in reality, Vietnamese officials attest that only unions founded under the VGCL umbrella will be considered legitimate.

As in China, foreign-invested companies in Vietnam frequently defy their legal obligation to establish a union branch, although joint-venture companies may sometimes inherit a pre-existing union and have to put up with it. Vietnam, however, has one significant advantage over China: a central Ministry of Labour which takes a role in all labour disputes. Whereas in China, labour disputes are funneled through progressive levels of mediation and the courts under the auspices of local government, Vietnam has a central responsible authority.

Thus, the Ministry of Labour is a structural ally of unionization, and sometimes has better leverage in forcing companies to live up to their legal obligations. Local Labour Departments in industrial zones often set up union branches on their own initiative, since they find it much easier to settle a strike in an enterprise with a union than without one. The VGCL claims that its membership now includes 50 percent of the workforce in the foreign-invested sector. One interesting phenomenon is the policy in some localities such as Dong Nai Province for unions to send “directive working staffs” to companies refusing to set up unions, either overtly or covertly, to encourage the workers to set up their own union branch. It is questionable whether this is the beginning of a grassroots approach to labour representation, but it certainly bears further study.

Enterprise Unions

There are, in theory, provisions in the Vietnamese Labour Code which would lend increased legitimacy to workplace unions, as detailed by scholars Anita Chan and Irene Norlund. Whereas enterprise unions in China depend on enterprise funding, and often management salaries, Vietnamese unions should subsist on union dues and government funding. Vietnamese labour law expressly forbids the union from exercising management functions, i.e. becoming an arm of human resources as often happens in China. Vietnamese workers also have the theoretical right to self-organise, as new unions must only notify the government, not seek approval from it.

In reality, although Vietnamese union members contribute 2 percent of their wages as union fees, and despite the labour law, many enterprise union presidents are paid by their company, due to VGCL funding shortages. While unlike China, workplace trade union elections are the norm in Vietnam, most candidates are managers and sponsored by management.

Structural Advantages

Labour enjoys several kinds of structural advantage within the Vietnamese party-state compared with its Chinese equivalent. First and most obviously, the VGCL is a smaller organisation with only three levels of organisation to deal with. The chairman of the VGCL is a minister and a Central Committee member, reflecting the historical importance of the union to the Vietnamese party. The VGCL also enjoys considerable leverage with the Ministry of Labour, which is even more pronounced at the local department level.

Not only is there significant overlap between VGCL and Ministry of Labour functions, their departments often share personnel. In Ho Chi Minh City, the Director of the Labour Department is also deputy head of the local union, while his counterpart in Hanoi is head of the Hanoi union. While some interpret the close cooperation between the VGCL and the Ministry as union subordination to the state monitoring apparatus, it should be recognised that, in a system of labour rights that depends heavily on state legislation and enforcement, this close relationship confers enviable structural leverage on the VGCL.

Local Departments of Labour (DOLISA) often seem to be more proactive in representing labour interests than their union equivalents. One local Department of Labour official asserted that since the VGCL does not provide much support for collective bargaining, the Departments of Labour end up counselling workers on how to negotiate for concessions beyond the legal minimums. One HCMC Department of Labour official, Nguyen Thi Dan, has not only created workshops for workers on labour rights, but has been conspicuous in advocating the workers’ positions at the scenes of numerous strikes, where workers defer to her rather than to the workplace unions that consistently ignore their interests. One could say that in a Western sense, Vietnam has no unions but has a powerful state-sanctioned worker advocacy group.

Role of Unions Contested

While it is legally possible for the VGCL to move into a genuine collective bargaining role, the organisation places little emphasis on developing this capacity, with little training or support provided, especially to workplace unions. Vietnamese unions in the foreign-invested sector continue many of the traditions of their predecessors in the state sector, using union budgets to provide sports and entertainment as well as wedding and funeral bonuses, one union president claiming that there is no other way to attract members.

One tactic used to control unions in both countries is for management to cultivate a set of workers with exceptional benefits and ensure that these workers form the core of the union, while transferring anyone who criticises the company to dead-end positions. Workers at one shoe factory in Ho Chi Minh City attested that the enterprise union had thrown their petitions over management labour violations “in the trash can.” Effective worker organisation is difficult to achieve because organisers tend to be victimized even while the state capitulates to worker demands. Occasionally, the enterprise union may successfully mediate a dispute, as in one tailoring company where the union asked management for disciplinary action against an abusive manager and asked workers for calm.

Dispute Resolution

While China has made the legal mechanisms for resolving labour disputes a going concern, Vietnam’s equivalent structure is all but non-functional. Numerous sources attest that enterprise conciliation committees have seldom heard cases. Informal bargaining and wildcat strikes seem to be the two pillars of the extra-legal reality that industrial relations has taken on. Strangely enough, this may be a positive sign.

In Vietnam, the legal procedure for redressing violations of labour law presumes collective representation by the trade union filing the grievance, which in other circumstances would constitute an improvement on the Chinese process. The procedure calls for the grievance to be dealt with first by the enterprise conciliation council, and then by a regional Arbitration Council, or the labour court. Having exhausted these avenues, the trade union can decide, with the support of the majority of its members, to call a strike. In practice, the workplace unions are usually too well controlled by management to initiate the grievance, and the workers know that the “employee” representatives on the conciliation council are managers.

Only in Ho Chi Minh City does there appear to be some progress, where 84 collective and 1118 individual cases had been heard between 1995 and 2006, largely because the local Department of Labour does not wait for a complaint but intervenes as soon as it hears of a problem, sometimes from managers eager to head off a strike.

Among foreign-invested enterprises with unions, less than 50 percent have signed collective agreements, according to VGCL figures. The issue seems in some ways redundant, since the collective agreements that are signed seldom exceed legal minimums, while other concessions were made through informal negotiation. Even when contracts are signed, management often does not honour the terms, and does not have clear policies on basic matters such as raises, bonuses and sick leave. The labour code violations of foreign-invested factories in Vietnam include the familiar arsenal of illegal overtime, short pay and intimidation.

Creative Response to Strikes

Strikes in Vietnam elicit an intriguing official response. The Ministry of Labour attempts to persuade management to meet workers’ demands, while the local VGCL branch persuades the workers to return to work. Most strikes in Vietnam are short, many stoppages being short enough they are not reported as strikes, with the Department Of Labour usually intervening to persuade employers to give in to worker demands. The VGCL consciously embraces the role of mediator, working with the employer to maintain industrial harmony. In contrast with China, there is seldom any direct police action against protesters in Vietnam, although this has changed somewhat in the past few years.

Alternate Channels of Representation

The VGCL has evolved a number of alternate means of representation and labour advocacy which bypass the ineffective workplace unions. The VGCL-run labour newspapers, especially the national Lao Dong (Labour) and Ho Chi Minh City Nguoi Lao Dong (Labourer), can provide an alternate channel for worker grievances. Workers can tip off the papers to abuses and impending disturbances in person, in writing or via 24 hour hotline, and the newspaper will send investigative journalists. These papers sort, analyse and publish grievances, as well as he causes of strikes. They have some freedom to criticise ineffective government monitoring and sanctions, as well as harmful industrial practices such as maintaining shell companies.

With independent budgets based on advertising, staffed by young journalists responsible for discrete areas who know the workers’ conditions and backed by a loyal readership, these papers can effectively facilitate conversations between workers, government and industry. This public forum not only puts pressure on the union and government to act, but moves the issue of labour rights into the realm of public input and debate, a conversation that may be the most direct and effective link between workers’ concerns and official action.

International Support

Unlike Chinese unions, Vietnamese unions may also join international unions and accept international donations. In China, distrust of “foreign interference” has all but eliminated the possibility of unions gaining support and experience from international counterparts. Vietnam, by contrast, sees improved labour practices as a means of attracting investment. The VGCL has been able to take advantage of the anti-sweatshop movement and emerging international standards, for example by collaborating with Social Accountability International with funding from the US State Department to improve labour standards, simultaneously urging factories to apply for SA8000 certification. The “foreign” nature of these standards is not seen as outside interference nor is it a cause for debate. If anything, these efforts constitute a new kind of effort to expand market access and investment.

The VGCL notably also permits its constituent regional and industrial organisations to engage with international labour organisations. Several of the industrial unions have taken the opportunity to connect with international unions in corresponding industries. While VGCL officials have made it quite clear that “propaganda… about independent/multi-labour unions, apolitical labour unions, labour unions fighting for economic goals etc.” is to be resisted, this political boilerplate has not deterred it from productive engagement.

The VGCL, and particularly the National Union of Industrial Workers, has been able to translate its freedom to associate with international unions into both a knowledge of international labour issues and considerable freedom of action. The VGCL delegation to an International Garment, Textile and Leatherworkers’ Federation workshop which proposed negotiating a Southeast Asian framework agreement with Pou Chen, the largest footware production company in the world, was able to immediately pledge participation without consulting with higher authorities. The head of the delegation was vice president of the NUIW.

The VGCL and Ministry of Labour have benefitted from the technical assistance and training provided by the ILO and international unions, although this does not filter down to workplace unions. Corporate codes of conduct originating overseas seem to be gaining ground enforcing labour rights in Vietnam where the VGCL is not. Third party international monitoring of labour practices is increasingly common. In all of these areas, the VGCL and Ministry of Labour have shown themselves politically able to both accept foreign assistance and use it pragmatically to enhance their own domestic programs and goals.

Rights Awareness and Labour History

Rights awareness on the part of migrant labour has been identified by several authors as a key distinguishing factor of the Vietnamese workforce. Taiwanese managers interviewed in Vietnam spoke of Vietnamese workers’ high awareness of labour rights and “democratic consciousness,” the ease with which they stage protests and the impossibility of applying the same harsh methods as they themselves had previously used in China.

Anita Chan and Hong-zen Wang claim a measurable difference between rights awareness of Vietnamese and Chinese workers, including awareness of maximum legal work hours and minimum wages. More importantly, not only were the Vietnamese workers aware of their rights, but indicated that they would strike if significant amounts of illegal overtime were required. Chinese laws regarding maximum hours and working conditions are generally honoured in the breach until a precipitating event causes the workers to strike.

This difference in worker awareness may come down to history. In China, the ACFTU was suppressed for many years due to intra-party conflict, and labour was never more than a tool for Party policy. In Vietnam, unions and labour remained strong and were a core element of the communist party’s strength and appeal throughout the French and American wars.

Expanding Basis of Action

A tripartite study between the University of Warwick, the ILO and the Vietnamese Ministry of Labour, published in the Journal of Industrial Relations, scrutinises the root causes of labour disturbance in Vietnam and has come up with something interesting.

The authors argue that Vietnamese workers have ceased to be satisfied with pressing their legal rights, which the state is no longer capable of enforcing, and wish to pursue their interests. While VGCL interpreted the demands of 30,000 workers striking in Ho Chi Minh City for a pay rise and better working conditions as being mainly a request to increase the minimum wage, these authors argue that they missed the point. The Director of the Wage and Salary Department at the Ministry of Labour, by contrast, acknowledged that the strike had nothing to do with minimum wages but with actual salaries. A VGCL official in Ho Chi Minh City acknowledged to the press that reasons for strikes have expanded to include shorter working hours, bonuses and even better food, in contrast to the previous situation where strikes generally revealed employers who were in breach of the Labour Code.

In this situation, the government must choose between continuing to support workers and suppressing them. The same trend can be seen in the fact that although the majority of strikes in Vietnam occur in foreign companies, and wages are usually the main issue in dispute, the foreign sector pays nearly twice as much as the domestic equivalent. Workers are clearly concerned with more than their subsistence needs.

A 2006 Labour Code revision recognised the distinction between rights-based and interests-based disputes. Following recent strike waves, the Ministry of Labour and VGCL acknowledged the need to shift from ad hoc actions to quell labour disputes to strengthening collective bargaining. For the VGCL, unfortunately, this means developing bargaining capacity at levels above workplace unions, despite government pressure to improve representation at the workplace level. The VGCL may well fear providing the extremely effective but anonymous leadership of the wildcat strikes with a public platform for organising workers.

A Pillar of State Legitimacy

Managers imported from the PRC to work in Taiwanese factories in Vietnam not only noted the marked difference in the power of factories to violate labour laws, for instance through illegal overtime, but attributed it to a proactive attitude on the part of the government. One said, “In China, we had to work much longer, sometimes until 1:00 or 2:00 am… In Vietnam, you cannot force workers to work after 10:00 pm. Why is there such a difference? The government. The Chinese government wants to make money and therefore just neglects workers’ rights.” Likewise, the VGCL’s struggles with the government have been widely reported, giving it significant credibility, while the ACFTU cannot hope for such ideological autonomy.

One explanation is that labour is a key pillar of state legitimacy in Vietnam to an extent that it never was in China. The Vietnamese Communist Party takes a much more sanguine attitude toward worker protest and its possible political implications than their Chinese counterparts. The Vietnamese government has historically perceived strikes in foreign companies as an opportunity to intervene and thus demonstrate its pro-labour ideological commitments. One author even goes so far as to suggest that the 1997 strike wave was a public relations exercise provoked by the government.

Vietnam’s Potential

Vietnam has the mindset at the tools to create one of the first really sound labour regimes in the region. To do so, it will have to overcome its inborn fear of genuine grassroots representation, but there are comparatively few other major obstacles to overcome.


Defending Island Chains: A Fixed Defence Model

Given the state of territorial conflicts in East Asia, defence analysts and planners are looking at how island archipelagos may be defended on an ongoing basis. Here is one possible model.

We assume a group of islands under threat of intimidation or occupation by sea and air, which its government is willing to defend by force. We also assume that risk of conflict is long-term and persistent, and that a solution that reduces the need for constant naval and air patrols is sought, or, alternatively, that the position at sea and in the air is so tenuous that any means to prolong resistance pending foreign intervention is sought.

The Concept

This model is based on the emplacement of fixed defences, designed to raise the cost of invasion and purchase time for reinforcements to arrive. The first step is to identify a close group of relatively small islands, near enough to be mutually-reinforcing (the entire group preferably no more than 50-70 km in diameter) and commanding an unobstructed view of the most likely hemisphere of attack.

Main Systems

For purposes of illustration, we will indicate particular systems, because it is only the combination of specific features of the systems used that would render this model viable. On these islands, the following systems could be installed in a scattered and concealed fashion:

– An Arabel radar and 3-6 SAMP/T launch systems for long-range air defence;
– A medium-range surface-to-air battery- preferably the Norwegian NASAMS 2, given its newfound ability to fire the Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile and its extremely dispersed sensor architecture;
– A coastal anti-ship missile system, such as the NSM Coastal Defense System, covering a hemisphere of approach to the entire chain.

These systems would be dispersed and mutually reinforcing throughout the group of islands selected. Needless to say, siting of the systems, networking, command and control and interoperability of the systems are the crucial factors for success. Both medium and long-range SAM systems can be widely dispersed from their guidance radars, and NASAMS 2 in particular provides eight mobile radar units in each battery of twelve launch vehicles.

The selection of systems here is specific and advocated as the best combination available for this role. Specifically, NASAMS 2 and NSM were developed for very similar operational environments. Though other systems could be substituted, this should be done with great care for the overall viability of the system. For example, a less-capable medium-range missile would be a critical weak link, and an anti-ship missile lacking either stealth characteristics or supersonic speed would pose a less serious obstacle.

Supporting Capabilities

In addition to the primary defensive systems, troops with shoulder-launched SAMs and anti-tank missiles could be employed to deter any attempt to infiltrate the islands by amphibious assault, helicopter or submarine.

Dual-purpose medium-calibre guns such as the Otobreda 76mm or Bofors 57mm could be emplaced ashore in strategic locations to deal with leaker aircraft, littoral-capable missile boats, amphibious assault and, to some extent, incoming missiles (both systems are claimed to have a credible CIWS capability). Naval artillery, as distinct from most land-based artillery, is a definite added value. The 76mm with Vulcano guided ammunition will have a 40km range, very useful for dispatching small craft, and Otobreda’s 127mm gun triples that, making it potentially a very potent anti-ship system.

The system could also be supplemented with acoustic mines or other antisubmarine measures. Since the system would need UAVs or helicopters to perform over-the-horizon scouting and targeting as well as transport, it may make sense to employ helicopters in an ASW and light anti-surface role as well.

Comparative Advantage

This defense system has some drawbacks. It is not cheap and is certainly no guarantee against a determined enemy. But it is cheaper than maintaining a fleet of warships or aircraft on patrol, and would arguably be more effective in its designed role, which would be to blunt the initial incursion and purchase time for reinforcements to arrive. In contradistinction to traditional methods of fortification, including naval mines, this system has the potential to inflict much greater damage on an attacking force and cannot be inexpensively removed by minesweepers. It deprives the enemy of the ability to maintain an unopposed maritime presence in the region, rather than merely denying the ability to pass through choke points or land troops by sea.

It will be pointed out that this system remains hopelessly inadequate against a modern air force with stand-off cruise missiles. In the numbers game, it cannot even begin to break even. But denying the enemy fixed or easily-located targets and providing a serious threat that requires risk and potentially massive ordinance investments to iradicate works as a first-stage defence strategy and provides some serious deterrence potential.

“Poor Man’s Version”

It would, of course, be possible to create a similar (and probably more dispersed) system using tools at hand- any combination of MLRS systems, SAM systems and tube artillery could theoretically be used to make life difficult for an incursion. However, against an advanced opponent, the lifetime of each unit after first use would be miniscule, naturally depending on the SAM systems employed to cover them.

A further temptation is to use such a system to back up a fully dug-in defence of the disputed islands. While there is no doubt that a force fighting on prepared ground and employing asymmetric tactics can inflict massive casualties on an invader, as the Japanese did on Iwo Jima and other Pacific islands, the loss of life would be extreme. This brings up another advantage of the original model, which is that large numbers of troops do not have to be invested in a potentially high-casualty defense scenario.

Disclaimer: This article is not meant to comment on the advisability of this approach in any real-world situation, but only to illustrate the military viability of the concept. In the real world, such a step should only be taken in a situation where violent confrontation has already occurred and the threat is imminent; in any other case, militarising a disputed chain might provoke rather than deter conflict.

China’s navy near Malaysia ‘to defend South China Sea’

China Daily Mail

A Chinese amphibious task force sparked jitters around the region by reaching the southernmost waters of its claimed domain

A fully equipped PLA amphibious task force has reached China’s southernmost claimed possession in the South China Sea in an unprecedented show of force that is raising eyebrows across the region.

The four-ship flotilla headed by the landing ship Jinggangshan visited James Shoal – some 80 kilometres from Malaysia, less than 200 kilometres from Brunei and 1,800 kilometres from the mainland coast – close to the outer limits of China’s “nine-dash line“, by which it lays claim to virtually the entire South China Sea.

A Xinhua report yesterday described marines and crew gathering on the deck of the Jinggangshan – one of the PLA Navy‘s three 200-metre landing ships – to pledge to “defend the South China Sea, maintain national sovereignty and strive towards the dream of a…

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USN UCAV (armed drones) Plans Update, Part 2

One of the most perceptive comments on the original article by BlackOwl18E:

“Guess what the USN is also looking at guys? The USN admitted that they are now seriously considering adding the conformal fuel tanks to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Tests for them are scheduled this summer.


What I find funny is the fact that they said the conformal tanks might cause a decrease in aerodynamic performance for the Super Hornet and that they may need to buy the EPE engines with a 20% increase in thrust to compensate for it. Sounds like they are looking for excuses to buy the other upgrades too. The AMC Type 4 is also being funded for by the USN and it is the exact same computer that the Super Hornet would need for a glass ****pit display.

In other words, the USN has now made significant moves toward three of the upgrades from the International Road Map program. Boeing better be smart about this and start independently funding the development for these immediately so it’s as easy on the USN as possible. The USN is going to have a hard time as it is trying to pull funding away from the F-35 black hole to get this done.

The fact that they are funding the Super Hornet upgrades and the UCLASS during sequestration show where their tac air values are. The Navy even supposedly tried to get out of the F-35 program, but failed and ended up getting stuck with buying the jet in order to counter cost increases in the others. The CNO practically said that we are now only buying them so the other models don’t increase in cost.


Read more:”

News Roundup: Alliances, Espionage and Fishing Boats

Vietnam accuses a Chinese vessel of firing on a Vietnamese fishing boat in the disputed waters of the Paracel Islands. China denied inflicting damage but said its response was “appropriate.”

Amid this environment of simmering territorial tensions, Japan is officially offering to make common cause with ASEAN as a vice-ministerial level conference in Japan takes off. The call for “closer security ties” is vague for a reason- aside from the ASEAN nations’ basic reluctance to form true alliance partnerships, China remains a key economic actor in Southeast Asia despite geopolitical tensions.

On the anniversary of the sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan, President Park calls on North Korea to change or perish, North Korea threatens to strike the US with long range missiles it doesn’t have, and may also have launched cyber attacks on South Korean banks and broadcast networks.

A Chinese engineer is jailed in the US for illegally taking hundreds of classified files with technical data on US drone systems out of the country, apparently in an effort to attract a Chinese employer. Given the vast scale of Chinese military-industrial espionage in the United States, catching this amateur is a rather pathetic victory.

In the News: South Korea and US strengthen Defence Plans

In response to North Korea’s recent intemperance, the US and South Korea have signed a new military plan which requires the United States to be part of the reply to any North Korean provocation, under South Korean leadership.

Meanwhile, China has reached a deal to buy 24 Su-35 fighters and 4 Lada class Air Independent Propulsion submarines from Russia. Given that the Chinese have previously copied both Russian fighters and Russian submarine technologies, we can:
1. Not hold our breath for any follow-on orders, and
2. Ask the Russian government what on earth it is thinking.

The last time Russia sold an advanced fighter to China, it was quickly copied and produced in China. Now the Chinese are no doubt buying the Su-35 to get a look at the latest refinements. The Lada buy is somewhat less explicable, given that China already has a fairly advanced fleet of conventional submarines based on Russian technology. It may indicate that China’s efforts toward air independent propulsion have hit some problems.

The Charm Offensive: A Retrospective

Joshua Kurlantzick’s 2007 book Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World was nothing less than an attempt to transform the way that the West thinks about China’s rise in world influence. A longtime Asia correspondent and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Kurlantzick lays out the breathtaking scope and multivalent complexity of China’s methods for developing soft power with a clarity born of personal experience. The message is clear: China is much smarter in its foreign policy than America had begun to concieve.

A Relevant Strategy

Today, China is still developing its international influence, but it is no longer whispering its way to success. Rather, it asserts its will with increasing stridency. And yet, behind the rhetoric, the mechanisms of soft power carry on, and the charm offensive strategy remains critically relevant if China is to avoid so alienating its neighbours that it becomes strategically isolated. At this juncture, a retrospective review of this remarkable book is useful in highlighting the goals and strategies of the charm offensive, which I would argue are still relevant, and may help us to understand the dangerous gamble the Party and the Chinese government would take by abandoning them. This is a history that anyone dealing with China internationally absolutely must be aware of.

Building A Narrative of Benevolence

Charm Offensive is above all a tale of China’s rapid implementation of a new way of relating to the world, within its own region and across the globe. This effort attempts to cast China as the benevolent leader among developing nations, generously doing its level best to bring to others the good fortune it now enjoys, the first Great Power to rise peacefully. Kurlantzick masterfully portrays the ways in which this foray into soft power- loosely defined- has found and created niches throughout the global economy, and with substantial effort has won over Southeast Asia and much of the developing world.

He portrays a China still unstable in its global identity, but able to learn and adapt quickly, and willing to put substantial effort into earning goodwill. This is not the China of the Western news media, which periodically hurls vituperative volleys in the direction of Japan and plays a bit part obstructing assorted international initiatives. If Charm Offensive falls into the familiar China-alarmist literature generated in the United States, this is only because it is couched as a wake-up call to the United States foreign policy establishment.

A Considered Strategy

Not so long ago, China was an isolated state, wary of multilateral institutions. Many credit ASEAN’s engagement with China with setting the stage for China’s foray into global institutions. The process of learning surrounding China’s ASEAN acclimatisation, and the watershed moment of choosing to help resolve the Asian Financial Crisis, went far deeper than mere multilateralism. A new generation of Chinese leadership and academics processed not only China’s experiences, but those of the United States, and arrived at a highly original approach to global soft power.

In order to create a perception of China’s “peaceful rise,” Beijing began to partner with, and advocate for, developing countries, sharing its own rising fortunes with the rest of the world. The China- ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, a first in Asia, was so successful as a policy that China began seeking out similar arrangements globally, behaving with economic generosity and attaching none of the conditions Western nations might. In countries of all sorts, China began to foster economic and cultural ties at an almost absurd rate.

Silent Growth

The dividends in influence have been impressive. China’s outward development investment, Kurlantzick notes, does not yet approach the volume of major Western investors, but is better promoted and concentrated strategically on China’s own periphery, becoming the largest investor in many Asian countries. China has also largely won back the loyalty of its Asian diaspora, with their considerable financial resources, wresting them from the influence of Taiwan. China’s rising fortunes have shed prestige on the diaspora, so that even those who are culturally and linguistically assimilated make a point of emphasising their heritage.

China’s Import-Export Bank has surpassed the World Bank as a source for loans in Africa. China has attained pre-eminence as an economic partner in unlikely places, such as nascent East Timor, simply by positioning itself well, in this case as an alternative to dependence on neighbouring Australia or Indonesia. China has even managed to recoup its image in Cambodia, where it once supported the Khmer Rouge regime. Chinese books, music, film and other cultural items are gaining currency throughout Asia. China has not been lazy about capitalising on its new influence in areas of interest to it, achieving considerable success thereby in fighting drug trafficking and human trafficking.

Against the common assertion that China offers no compelling model for the world, Kurlantzick believes that China’s success in state-directed development provides an attractive model for Latin American and African, as well as Asian, states, including some democracies. The promotion of Chinese studies in nations throughout Asia is mirrored by a massive effort to attract foreign students to China, effort helped by a corresponding decline in Taiwanese foreign student subsidies and the rise of visa obstacles for students wishing to study in the United States. Just as the British educated generations of leaders at Oxford, the Chinese are now doing so, and at the same time creating programs to bring existing leaders to China, for training or just to be impressed.


As geopolitical strategy, there is no question that the “charm offensive” is a work of art to be admired, as Kurlantzick certainly does. That is not to say that he is blind to its dark side. Chinese officials repeatedly assert that China will be the first Great Power to rise without victimising other nations. This is the measure, then, by which China will ultimately answer the world’s ambivalence. Will it undertake policy adjustments in accord with this promise, recognising that contradictions in its foreign policy damage its image and legitimacy, or will it ignore them?

China has not been above using its pervasive influence for perfidious ends, notably in the case of the damming of the Mekong River, where Cambodia has been unable to muster the political will to force the Chinese to acknowledge the environmental and human cost of the project. This stands in contrast to the pattern of generosity accompanying China’s formal economic negotiations with weaker states, and such contrasts can only reduce China’s political capital. Some of the political ends served by the charm offensive are also not in line with the neutral and peaceable face of the new China. One such objective has been to isolate Taiwan from the few friends it had. More pernicious and excessive has been China’s courting of countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe, even while the former engaged in genocide. One can only hope China will outgrow the need for such demonstrations of support for states whose actions are certainly criminal by China’s own internal standards.

Then again, not all harmful effects of the charm offensive are deliberate. Kurlantzick points out that China risks exporting its own unresolved problems, including poor labour practices. While this is no doubt true, this is one challenge that China must meet internally in the coming years, which in turn will no doubt alter the practices it exports. China must face a succession of internal challenges in the near future, related to rule of law, environmental degradation, labour, income disparities, and perhaps, government structure. As it does so, one might expect to see the impact of these issues on trade and aid.

China Must Choose

Throughout his book, Kurlantzick makes much of Beijing’s advantage in being a new face. For instance, China’s relatively small assistance after the 2004 tsunami gained more public notice than the expected American and Japanese aid. Thus, American human rights abuses gain far more attention in the Southeast Asian media than Chinese abuses; one is the preeminent power, the other the fresh and dynamic alternative. China has also successfully generated a narrative in Asia regarding the North Korean situation, in which it is a rational actor mediating between North Korean and American extremists. America, Kurlantzick argues, is a known and somewhat tarnished quantity, while China is still in the process of an expansion analogous to 1950s America.

With greater experience, the “honeymoon period” will end. If familiarity does breed trouble for the charm offensive, one might expect to see a decision point, at which either China will redouble its efforts and address inconsistencies in its policy, or it will begin to rely on hard power, as the pessimists believe. That may be exactly what we are beginning to see now.

American Reply?

Kurlantzick emphasises that the charm offensive has filled the vacuum left by the decline of American soft power following the end of the Cold War, and he both presents options for America to convert its remaining advantages into renewed soft power and examines, almost hopefully, the ways in which Chinese soft power could yet decline.

But too many engrained American tendencies remain unaddressed, and the speed and aplomb with which China improves its policies remains a factor not to be underestimated. The danger of any concentrated American action is premature polarisation of the region, which, under any scenario, serves the interests of none of the parties. The best option, then, is to do as the Chinese did: observe, analyse, and develop new soft power capacity.

Uncharted Waters

Now in 2013, the most serious problem with the charm offensive comes to light. China took the most intelligent path available to it, but it did not know where it was going. It did not ask itself whether China as a nation had the will to maintain the image it was trying to create. Now, the feeling is that China has exchanged Deng Xiaoping’s principle of hiding brightness and cherishing obscurity for a new confidence, uncertainty for certainty- the Middle Kingdom returning to its rightful place in the world.

But how secure is China in its newfound power, and how will the world’s perceptions change if the principles behind peaceful rise are abandoned? China has truly leapt into uncharted territory. The danger, for China and for the world, is that China will not slow down long enough to lay the foundations of long-term international influence and respect, without which its preeminence may be tragic and short.

A Strategic Classic

Charm Offensive is more than a geopolitical analysis; it is an exposition of one of the most insightful pieces of strategy that global politics has ever seen, and will live on for that reason. Of course, it’s also a quick and highly enjoyable read. Now more than ever, it should be required reading for every foreign service officer worldwide.