When Soft Power Fails
"Soft power" doesn't work when it's a fig leaf for military dominance.
The oldest Chinatown in the world is not in New York or San Francisco or even Yokohama. It is in Manila, a fact that comes up often when Beijing talks about its longstanding connection to the islands that lie about 600 miles to the southeast. Similarly, China boasts of its three Confucius Institutes in the Philippines where Filipinos can learn Mandarin and appreciate the many facets of Chinese culture. Since 2011, Chinoy TV has also spread the Confucius Institute message to all the Filipinos who can’t physically attend the cultural events.
Trade between the two countries, meanwhile, is expanding rapidly. In 1996, Mainland China didn’t even make it into the top ten of trade partners of the Philippines. Today, with trade volume at $30 billion, China has become number three. After a set of talks in Beijing in 2011, the two sides agreed to double this figure by 2016, which would vault China into the top spot.
China’s exercise of soft power in the Philippines is by no means unique in the region. Beijing has Confucian Institutes throughout Asia – seven in Indonesia, nine in Australia, 12 in Japan, and 17 in South Korea – and China is the leading trade partner for a number of Southeast Asian countries.
It would seem, from this quick thumbnail sketch, that Chinese soft power has been extraordinarily successful in the Philippines as in the rest of Asia. But that’s only part of the story.
China, after all, has not restricted itself solely to the exercise of soft power to increase its influence in the region. In 1994, in an attempt to claim disputed territory in the South China Sea, China built structures on Mischief Reef, well within the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines. Manila didn’t respond militarily to this provocation. But it has asserted its claims to the disputed region in other ways, for instance by arranging a seismic survey to determine underwater oil resources. Chinese patrol boats attempted to disrupt the survey. Later, Manila seized Chinese fishermen operating in the area, and China retaliated by refusing boatloads of Philippine bananas.
Although China has not asserted its claims to the South China Sea through overwhelming military force, its rhetoric can be quite overreaching. Beijing’s “nine-dash line” concept of Chinese sovereignty takes about as large a bite as possible out of the South China Sea. In 2012, Chinese military spending went up 11 percent, pushing its official spending over $100 billion. For the United States, which spends about seven times as much on the military, Chinese military increases don’t represent a significant threat. But for the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries, Chinese spending has contributed to a major arms race in the region.
With its soft-power overtures, China has tried to expand its influence without disquieting its neighbors and trade partners. But through its hard-power posturing, China has achieved the exact opposite. The Philippines, for instance, has moved inexorably closer to the United States in an effort to balance China. Manila negotiated a doubling in Foreign Military Financing from the United States in 2012 and has made its military bases more accessible to U.S. forces. This in a country that unceremoniously kicked the United States out of the Subic and Clark military bases back in 1991. The Philippines has also sought U.S. help in regional organizations to push back against China on the issue of the disputed territory.
The South China Sea is not the only place where Chinese hard power is undercutting its soft power. Currently China and Japan are escalating their claims over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. The Japanese government recently “bought” the islands from a private owner; China has sent planes to monitor Japanese fighter jets in the area. The fact that China is Japan’s leading export market has not seemed to moderate statements coming out of Tokyo.
China’s handling of soft power and hard power is not a contradiction. Beijing’s approach is actually copied straight from the originator of the concept: the United States.
In 1990, Harvard professor Joseph Nye developed the concept of soft power as a way to preserve U.S. power in a changing world. He never imagined that the United States would abandon hard power. Rather, he urged the United States to increasingly rely on diplomacy, economic relations, and cultural exchanges at a time when it seemed that military force was yielding diminishing returns with the end of the Cold War.
Thomas Friedman formalized this dual approach with his corollary to Nye’s theory: that the soft power of McDonald’s needs the hard power of McDonnell Douglas to be successful. The United States should strive to preserve its unipolar position in the world, Friedman argued, with a hidden fist to complement the hidden hand of the market. China’s approach to the South China Sea is simply an Asian version of this U.S. strategy.
Over the last decade, the U.S. approach – redubbed “smart power” by the likes of Hillary Clinton – has produced some very prominent failures – in Iraq under the leadership of advertising executive Charlotte Beers, in Africa under the dubious leadership of AFRICOM, in the Muslim world in the wake of Barack Obama’s famous speech in Cairo. In each of these cases, U.S. hard power undercut its soft power aims. Iraqis were unenthusiastic about U.S.-financed magazines as long as U.S. soldiers were an occupying force. Africans receiving humanitarian aid from NGO workers accompanied by U.S. soldiers worried about the ultimate purpose of an assistance program carried out under the Pentagon’s direction. And although Muslims cheered President Obama’s words in Cairo, they watched as drone attacks continued to claim the “collateral damage” of civilian lives, the vast majority being Muslims.
Washington has been reluctant to reevaluate “soft power” when it seems so obviously a fig leaf for the assertion of military dominance. But perhaps by looking at the palpable failures of Chinese efforts in Asia, U.S. policymakers could learn some lessons about strategy. Other countries in Asia that aspire to cultivate both hard power and soft power – Japan, South Korea – should also take note: you rarely can have it both ways.