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.
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.
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.
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.