Board game of strategic skill for two players, played on a checkered board.

Throughout the 2000s, China emphasised soft power in its interactions and relations with the world. This manifested in numerous international festivals, art exhibitions and cultural performances, a network of Confucius Institutes, the popularity of Chinese language and culture classes, and an expansion of international television and radio broadcasting, among other initiatives. Amid growing concerns that China is pursuing its interests more assertively and becoming less tolerant of critical voices abroad, however, we may wonder whether China has abandoned its soft power strategy. Answering this question requires an understanding of the nature of power and China’s view of it.

The nature of power
Each country has a range of tangible and intangible power resources that it can use to pursue its goals in world politics. This can be done through coercion, inducement or attraction. Coercion means using power resources to force or threaten others, inducement means using power resources to reward or pay others, and attraction means using power resources to charm, persuade or co-opt others to act in ways that result in a country’s goals being achieved. Joseph Nye coined the term soft power to describe the use of attraction in world politics, defining it as “getting others to want the outcomes that you want.” Any power resource, ranging from the military to culture, can conceivably be used in this manner.

China’s view of power
A key to understanding China’s view of power and its use is the concept of comprehensive national power. This is the idea that a country must possess a full spectrum of power resources – economic, military, scientific, technological, political, cultural, natural – if it is to become a truly great power. Having comprehensive national power allows a country to choose which resource(s) to use in a particular situation and whether to use them for coercion, inducement or attraction.

China’s focus on soft power
Soft power received much attention because it was seen as an area where China was lagging behind. Former president Hu Jintao, for example, said at the 17th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that China needed to build its soft power to become a powerful and successful country, and highlighted culture as an important resource for doing so. Later, in 2014, president Xi Jinping said, “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world.” China’s soft power strategy also encompasses trade, aid and investment activities intended to make it more attractive. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an obvious example.

Soft power is not suitable for all purposes and any country would be foolish to rely solely on it

Today, investment in soft power continues apace, with China expert David Shambaugh estimating China spends US$10 billion per year on its various initiatives. Official support for soft power remains high, too, with the 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020) stating that China needs to continue to grow its soft power.

However, as the concept of comprehensive national power shows, it is just one tool in China’s toolkit. After all, soft power is not suitable for all purposes and any country would be foolish to rely solely on it. As Nye says in his book The Future of Power, “soft power is not the solution to all problems.” China’s interests are rapidly expanding across the world and it is to be expected that China will encounter situations in which it determines soft power is not the solution. In other words, just because China does some things which are decidedly in the realms of coercion and inducement, doesn’t mean it has given up on soft power altogether.

Pushback against China
This is not to say China’s choices about how it uses its power resources are always legitimate or well-received by other countries. Indeed, China needs to be mindful that relying too heavily on coercion and inducement can easily undermine its efforts to build and use soft power. Some of China’s recent activities fall into this category, including attempts to influence policy and public opinion in Australia through donations to political parties and grooming candidates for local elections, island building in the South China Sea, and naval deployments in the Indian Ocean.

Such activities have resulted in negative reactions to China in various parts of the world. Australia has proposed foreign interference laws and is reviving the quadrilateral security dialogue together with the US, Japan and India. Japan is considering expanding the capabilities of its defense force and the US’s National Security Strategy and National Defence Strategy are largely aimed at curtailing and countering China’s influence. At the recent Munich Security Conference, several prominent European leaders were also critical of the BRI, seeing it as a challenge to the Western liberal world order.

Ironically, the failure of coercive means to achieve China’s goals and concerns over the detrimental effects of negative views of China, were important factors in China’s decision to pursue soft power. China may well come to the same conclusion again.

Jeffrey Gil is a senior lecturer in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia. He is the author of Soft Power and the Worldwide Promotion of Chinese Language Learning: The Confucius Institute Project, published by Multilingual Matters.

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