China Steps Into Soft Power Vacuum

By Asit Biswas, Cecilia Tortajada 16 March, 2018

Biswas & Tortajada on how the Asian giant is becoming the world's leading soft power amid the US' missteps

China is exploiting a soft power gap as the US retreats; one key weapon is the “One Belt, One Road” programme
This is helped by China’s infrastructural development, economic success, research progress & cultural heritage
But China’s rise in soft power faces hurdles: from border issues to its extensive environmental pollution problems

This article was first published on The Conversation on January 8 2018 and the authors have kindly given us permission to re-publish it. The original publication can be found here


Soft power is the ability of a country to shape other countries’ views, attitudes, perceptions and actions without force or coercion. Its importance has been acknowledged for centuries, though the term was only coined by American political scientist and author Joseph Nye in the late 1980s.

“A country’s soft power depends on many factors, including its performance, global image & international reputation”

A country’s soft power depends on many factors, including its performance, global image and international reputation. A state can use soft power to attract supporters and partners towards its policies, views and actions.
Take, for instance, the case of China’s giant pandas.
In 685 AD Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty presented two giant pandas to the Japanese emperor. More than a millennium later, in 1941, Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek gifted another pair to the Bronx Zoo in appreciation of the US’s wartime help. Pandas remain a hallmark of Chinese soft power even today.
These animals have become symbols of China’s efforts in wildlife preservation and environmental protection. They are a way for China to communicate a caring and genial approach and culture.
And soft power will remain a key strategy for China into the coming decades. In October 2017, at the governing party’s national congress, President Xi Jinping outlined steps to enhance China’s soft power and make its culture more globally appealing:

“We will improve our capacity for engaging in international communication so as to tell China’s stories well, present a true, multi-dimensional and panoramic view of China, and enhance our country’s soft power.”

– President Xi Jinping

 
China is stepping into a soft power vacuum created by the US’s new administration. Since Donald Trump was elected president, the US has eschewed soft power. It’s withdrawn from a global climate change agreement; renegotiating a number of bilateral treaties and taken an openly “America first”, and somewhat isolationist stance. Its cordial relations with many traditional allies have become strained.

China is stepping into a soft power vacuum created by the US’s new administration…

…one of China’s key weapons is the “One Belt, One Road” programme

trump xi
China has spotted the gap and is attempting to woo many countries whose US relations are wavering. One of China’s key weapons is the “One Belt, One Road” programme, a USD900 billion initiative that aims to strengthen land and sea transportation links through major investments in transport infrastructure in Asia, Europe and Africa.
This is the equivalent of the US’s Marshall plan, which significantly improved West European countries’ economies after World War II. This help was not altruistic; nor is China’s “One Belt, One Road” programme. Assisting other nations through economic growth is a way of wielding soft power and advancing a country’s global standing. This will be important for China, which needs to counter its reputation as a one party state with hegemonic intentions.

How soft power has featured

China’s economic success, massive infrastructural development, academic and research progress, cultural heritage and success in sports will continue to increase its soft power in the future.

An increasing interchange of visitors will give foreigners an insight into Chinese culture, history & its economic might

Culture and tourism are always important aspects of soft power. Some 138 million tourists visited China in 2016, a growth of 3.5% over 2015 Similarly, 122 million Chinese visitors went abroad in 2016, a growth of 4.3% over 2015. This increasing interchange of the visitors will give foreigners an insight into Chinese culture, history and its economic might – all of which will further enhance China’s soft power.

China is also emerging as a global leader in terms of academic and research progress. High income countries’ share of global research and development (R&D) expenditure fell from 88% to 69.3% between 1996 and 2013.
China alone filled this gap. It increased its share from a paltry 2.5% to 19.6% in 17 years. Recently, China’s average annual R&D expenditure growth has been 18.3%, compared to an anaemic growth rate in upper and middle income countries of 1.4%.
Increased educational and research activities have ensured that the number of foreign students in China is increasing rapidly. China now ranks third in attracting foreign students, after the US and UK. Its universities are climbing the global rankings. This, along with rapid internationalisation, policies that support foreign students, and affordability of study and living costs compared to the West, means China could soon become the top destination for international students.

“Of some 5mn international students pursuing higher education outside their countries, nearly 25% are Chinese”

And the reverse is also true. Of some 5 million international students pursuing higher education outside their countries, nearly 25% are Chinese. It’s another form of cultural interchange that will contribute to China’s soft power, as are the many Confucius Institutes set up around the world to showcase China’s culture, history, language, economic and social development. The idea is somewhat similar to the UK’s British Councils, Germany’s Goethe Institutes and France’s Alliance Francaise.

China fills gap left by US

American soft power, on the other hand, is now in retreat.
The asymmetry of views between leaders of the world’s two soft powers has made Xi the poster child for globalisation, free trade and international cooperation.
During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in November 2017, in Vietnam, Trump reconfirmed his “America first” policy. This approach will further decrease America’s soft power.
Meanwhile, Xi is singing from a different hymn sheet. Also in Vietnam, he noted in his speech that globalisation is an “irreversible historical trend” and championed multilateral trading regimes.
He presented a vision of the future that is interconnected and invited “more countries to ride the fast train of Chinese development.”

“China’s rise as the world’s leading soft power will not be without hurdles”

China’s rise as the world’s leading soft power will not be without hurdles. It must tackle border issues with its neighbours; navigate the current South China Sea disputes and find solutions to its extensive environmental pollution problems, among other things.
Despite these challenges, the US’s many missteps and China’s demonstrated social and economic success – as well as its increasing use of soft power – mean that the Asian giant is on the rise.


Further Reading

  • Two Sessions, Five Highlights For Water – An ‘ecological civilisation’ is now embedded in China’s constitution and ministerial reform has been tabled. Find out what these mean for water in our review of this year’s Two Sessions. Pay attention or risk being blindsided
  • Key Water Policies 2017 – 2018 – Missed out on key water and water-related policies in China this past year? Catch up with China Water Risk Woody Chan’s review, including the latest on the new Water Ten Law and environmental tax law
  • Is China Taking Over Global Leadership On The Environment? – Top experts, from the founder of TECONET to the Head of Asia-Pacific for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, share their thoughts at a high level panel in City University of Hong Kong. Their Sadhika Nanda reviews
  • Sustainable Finance – Hong Kong Is Ready! – Is Hong Kong ready to embrace sustainable finance? RS Group’s Leonie Kelly, Tze-wei Ng and Alicia Lui share findings from the Sustainable Finance Initiative’s first market-survey
  • Water Efficiency Policy: A Technological High-Water Mark? – From biomimicry to data analytics, Singapore is developing new technology to produce clean water without sinking the environment. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Tommy Kevin Lee and Cecilia Tortajada expand
  • China’s Green Planning For The World Starts With Infrastructure – China can exert greater external influence through infrastructure development but Professor Asit K Biswas and Kris Hartley from the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy caution against it citing financial and environmental risks. See more
  • A Chinese Model For Foreign Aid – As the US & the EU retreat from their foreign-aid commitments, Professor Asit K Biswas and Kris Hartley from the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy see this as an opportunity for a new and willing aid champion, China. See why
  • Can China Clean Up Its Act? – China faces unprecedented air, water & soil pollution after decades of growth. With its contaminated land area bigger than the United Kingdom, Asit K Biswas & Cecilia Tortajada look at what China’s policymakers are doing to change this
  • What ‘Xi’s Thought’ Means For Water – One key message from Xi Jinping at the 19th National Congress was harmony between environment & economic growth, surely this bodes well for water? China Water Risk’s Feng Hu reviews
  • Green Development For A Beautiful China – The Minister of Environmental Protection Ganjie Li outlined the MEP’s achievements and future plans at the 19th People’s Congress. What are the key takeaways? China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu reviews

Asit Biswas
Author: Asit Biswas
Professor Biswas is a leading authority on water, environment and development-related issues. He has been an advisor and confidant to Presidents, PMs and Ministers of 19 countries, six Heads of UN Agencies, two Secretary-Generals of OECD and several heads of IGOs and MNCs. He was also Director of Canada’s Department of the Environment. Asit co-founded the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), the World Water Council and the Third World Centre for Water Management and currently sits on the International Advisory Board of Pictet Asset Management and the Indian Institute of Technology and is Strategic Advisor to Singapore International Water Week as well as Distinguished Visiting Professor to the University of Glasgow. Asit is a distinguished Academician. With 950+ publications, his h-index of 44 makes him an ‘outstanding scientist’ and a Research Gate score of 41.89, puts him into the top 2.5% of all scientists across all disciplines globally. He founded the International Journal of Water Resources Development and is the author or editor of 88 books; his works have been translated into 41 languages. He has also seven Honorary Doctorates plus numerous prestigious global environment and water awards, ranging from the Aragon Environment Prize to the Stockholm Water Prize; Canada even named him Person of the Year in 1996.
Read more from Asit Biswas →
Cecilia Tortajada
Author: Cecilia Tortajada
Dr Tortajada is a leading international authority on urban water and wastewater management. She currently focuses on ensuring water future in terms of food, energy and environmental governance and ensuring water security through coordinated policies, which include water and natural resources management and water reuse. Dr Tortajada has advised major international institutions like FAO, UNDP, JICA, ADB, OECD, IDRC and GIZ, and has worked in numerous countries in Africa, Asia, North and South America plus Europe. She received the prestigious Crystal Drop Award and has been the only woman President of the International Water Resources Association during its 50 years of history. Dr Tortajada is currently a member of the OECD Initiative on Water Governance and juror for the Finnish Academy’s Euro One Million Millennium Technology Prize. She is also the Editor‐in‐Chief of the International Journal of Water Resources Development; Associate Editor of Water International; member of the Editorial Boards of the International Journal of Water Governance, Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research, and Urban, Planning and Transport Research Journal; as well as Editor of book series with Routledge, Springer and Oxford University Press. Cecilia has also authored and edited over 40 books by major international publishers. Her work has been translated into Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Mongolian and Spanish.
Read more from Cecilia Tortajada →