China should publicize such actions as part of a commercial soft power approach, but also as appropriate to its current stage of economic development. Established opportunities for investments within Chinese workshops and plants are declining and might be substituted by further efforts at diversifying growth within China itself, and deploying a greater portion of its massive foreign-exchange reserves to projects overseas.
If China itself makes real effort to interpret all such actions as aiding the international system, and especially the US position in that system, the resulting global political rewards could be enormous, and eventually serve to increase commercial outcomes as relations between Chinese and foreign agencies ease and liberalize.
At the same time, success in soft power advances might well reduce frictions and promote more liberalism in China itself and give power to progressive forces generally. This in turn will improve China’s global image even further.
Presently, US pundits are claiming that the petrifying of US President Barack Obama’s tour of Asia during the government shutdown is a gain to China as it detracts from the US role in East Asia. It would be good to turn this attitude around. Yet China will rightfully be held in low esteem if it continues to fail to use its potential commercial soft power.
The application of soft power remains a valid test of China’s ability to be pragmatic, to move politically toward a more liberal position without destabilizing either its economic growth or its political equilibrium. The evidence is now mounting that China, at best, is a very slow learner, witness its predictable and weak position over North Korean nuclear program.
China is not going to reinvent itself overnight. No large system can, even after defeat in war. Look at the massive assistance received by both Germany and Japan after 1945 and the slow, uncertain political crawl back during the 1960s, only successful in each case after a phase of significant economic growth.
An alternative is to replace the periodic stand-off tactics with a pragmatic soft-power policy, extending goodwill at very little cost to the economy and possibly immense reward to China’s cultural image and potential for greater integration into the comity of nations.
Taking a slightly different tack on the old Chinese adage, seeming crisis may be edged into realistic opportunity.
Ian Inkster is a professor of global history at Wenzao University of International Studies