Most recent statements from China seem to suggest that once more the second-largest world economy is refusing to use its commercial strength to increase its global soft power.
The notion of soft-power has become very complex in recent analyses, but in the end, the argument still runs that any large nation has three types of power beyond its borders: hard, soft and commercial.
Hard, physical military power, is embodied by both the US and China.
Soft power — meaning cultural and diplomatic power — usually evolves over time through cultural, diplomatic, intellectual, commercial and mass media networks and global interactions.
Commercial power, often neglected, translates mainly into physical, hard power, terms (such as the purchase or sale of military equipment) or into soft power terms, such as loans, aid, cultural exchanges and projects, and transnational enterprises that pass popular culture through the global system. Coca Cola and McDonalds are supreme examples because they incorporate in their simple products complex messages about Western democratic culture.
Major powers have developed different mixes of these three modes of power, often beginning with the first and then developing the second and third over time. Thus, Great Britain started with the gunboat diplomacy that dominated the later 19th century, shifted to soft power colonialism in many parts of the world, and then used commercial soft power through large aid packages to Africa, Asia and other systems.
This was often in an effort that was not only humanitarian, but also commercial — in the middle of the 20th century Britain was struggling against the US for control over key oil resources in the Middle East, and for both nations, commercial soft power was an essential component of a global battle that still continues.
The US clearly emerged after 1945 as the great hard power victor of World War II and accelerated its hard power position throughout the Cold War, at the same time as using transnational corporations to “Americanize” much of European popular culture (from hamburgers to jeans to Hollywood), and this process, beginning in the 1950s and 1960s has continued as a global process till today.
Smaller or defeated nations had a checkered history of using the power mix: Germany is a great example of a system that emerged from 1945 with no credibility on any three of the power modes, yet now has emerged wielding all three in partnership with the IMF in order to dominate the failing European movement, at least as represented with the EU and policies towards Greece, Spain, Cyprus and others. This reverse of fortune was dominated by German economic success and also by reunification after 1989, which increased its population and allowed it to stand as an arbiter between East and West.
China is now the great, unexpected global giant. Its use of physical power has been clumsy, undirected and unconvincing with its reiteration of stale positions over Taiwan, border areas and North Korea. Its cultural power is minimal, with the East Asian cultural impetus having been in the hands mainly of Japan since the 1960s and now increasingly owned and demonstrated by the smaller newly industrialized countries of the region — Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore in particular.
Using the English-language as a cultural weapon, they have wielded increasing soft power as a group that can prove East Asian democracy, high standards of living, innovative enterprises, basically peaceful motives and methods and a range of consumer goods that are attractive throughout the globe.