Call it disaster-relief judo. China pulled off a nifty feat of diplomatic one-upsmanship following the Haitian earthquake, rushing a cargo plane loaded with relief supplies to the stricken country before US Navy vessels could reach the scene. Bragged the official People’s Daily: “It was the Chinese rescuers, not the Americans, who were among the first relief personnel to arrive in the Caribbean country, even though China is farther away from Haiti than the US.”
Not so fast. In the contest for first impressions, China emerged the clear victor. However, unless Beijing follows up with a serious humanitarian campaign, history will remember its post-earthquake relief flight as a publicity stunt, if at all.
“Soft power,” a concept much in vogue in Asia and the West, helps explain why. Harvard University professor Joseph Nye, who coined the term, says soft power represents the “ability to entice and attract.” It is a byproduct of an appealing culture, policies or other attributes. Nye says a nation rich in soft power improves its chances of success in world politics “because other countries want to follow it, admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness.”
As my colleague Toshi Yoshihara puts it, soft power is like a “pheromone” inherent to attractive nations. A nation so gifted can apply it as “perfume,” enhancing its ability to persuade. However, a nation’s good name requires careful tending. Claimants to soft power must profess altruistic ideals and back them up with deeds consistently over time, setting a pattern of benign behavior. Soft-power diplomacy involves more than atmospherics, boastfulness or isolated acts of mercy.
These subtleties appear lost on Beijing. The US enjoys major reserves of soft power owing to its openness and to liberal traditions embodied in founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. India benefits from its history of nonviolence and nonalignment. As the historic center of a Sinocentric order in Asia, China too might seem awash in soft power, but by Nye’s definition, the outlook is more mixed.
China — or, more specifically, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime — must earn a reputation for benevolence.
True, China’s beguiling history and Confucian heritage exert a power of attraction, throughout Asia and beyond. However, not so long ago, the CCP regime went to extravagant lengths to dissociate itself from — and indeed destroy — much of that culture. That gives fellow Asians pause. In a sense, consequently, Beijing is starting anew in its quest for soft power. Rendering assistance after natural disasters represents one opportune way for Beijing to establish a good name.
China got off to a slow start refurbishing its reputation. It stood idle from 2004 to 2005, after a massive tsunami swept across South Asia. Twenty-one nations — including minor powers like Switzerland, with a fraction of China’s resources — rushed a combined 102 ships and 196 aircraft to the afflicted region. The size of the Chinese contingent? Zero. Despite Beijing’s claim to leadership in Asia, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) found itself a spectator, unable to stage naval forces beyond China’s immediate environs.
Nor was Beijing especially generous by other measures. The People’s Daily was reduced to arguing lamely that the miserly US$90 million donated by China constituted a “tangible” contribution to tsunami relief. The leadership’s puzzling indifference, coupled with the PLA’s shortfall in capacity, left the US military, the Japan Self-Defense Forces and other expeditionary forces to reap the goodwill that repays acts viewed as selfless.
China, in short, found itself upstaged by prospective rivals in Southeast and South Asia, regions of real and growing Chinese interest. Its leadership in effect vowed “never again” to miss out on major humanitarian undertakings. By rushing supplies and personnel to the Caribbean, Beijing wants to burnish an image tarnished through past inaction, expiating memories of the tsunami debacle. As a bonus, it hopes to outshine the US military in its own backyard.
That last goal is whimsical. Belated or not, US relief efforts will dwarf any effort China can mount in the Caribbean, but that doesn’t really matter. Soft power is not a zero-sum game, in which one player gains only at another’s expense. Lending a hand so far from Chinese shores represents an admirable act on Beijing’s part — an act that will energize Chinese soft power, provided it’s part of a sustained errand of mercy.
James Holmes is an associate professor at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday last week met with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) at an APEC summit in Thailand. The meeting made front-page news in Japan the following day. Three years ago, when then-Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe visited Beijing to meet with Xi, no one questioned Abe’s attitude toward China, as the conservative parties in Japan had been spearheaded by Abe. However, Kishida could easily be labeled as pro-China, as he hails from Hiroshima — a place known for its anti-war, anti-nuclear movements — and was once the director of the Japan-China Friendship Association of Hiroshima.
It is quite the irony when former British prime minister Boris Johnson — a buffoon who for far too long was taken seriously — is branded a buffoon for saying something deadly serious. Following Johnson’s withering criticism of China at a business forum in Singapore on Wednesday last week, the event’s organizer, Michael Bloomberg, apologized to attendees, saying that Johnson was “trying to be amusing rather than informative and serious.” However, Johnson’s characterization of China as a “coercive autocracy” that had showed “a candid disregard for the rule of international law” was spot-on. His comments evoked the wisdom of the Austrian-British philosopher
Although the share price of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) has fallen significantly amid concerns over worldwide inflation, US billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway spent a massive US$4.1 billion on the chipmaker’s American depositary receipts. Reporting on Buffett’s investment in TSMC, some Chinese-language media outlets have said that it would give the Taiwanese economy a shot in the arm. Although TSMC has planted its flag in various countries around the world, Taiwan is still its most important base. The US invited TSMC to set up a plant in Arizona, because it was worried that its source of cutting-edge chips would
As campaign fever for tomorrow’s local elections turns white hot, supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) have been going head to head on social media. The latest row was triggered by a Facebook post on Nov. 13 by songwriter and KMT supporter Liu Chia-chang (劉家昌), who rebuked United Microelectronics Corp founder Robert Tsao (曹興誠) for advocating independence. “Although you regained your ROC [Republic of China] citizenship after returning from Singapore, you continue to help the green independents by guarding their flank,” Liu wrote, adding that it was an “insult to the nation.” “When [KMT