China Understands the Strength of Soft Power

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By Quentin Choy

July 28, 2021

As the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, American priorities are shifting to the rise of China and the role it plays in Southeast Asia. Decades of foreign war in the Middle East have reduced American legitimacy on the global stage. Attempts to use armed force, or hard power to shape the Middle East in America’s image has been a massive policy failure.

However, as the U.S. leaves the region, China takes a different approach – soft power.

Soft power is defined as “the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion.” This includes negotiations, investments, and cultural dominance.

China’s Poor Diplomatic Behavior

China is not the best nation in terms of reacting to policy criticism. Criticism, or even discussion of taboo subjects like Hong Kong, Tibet, Uyghur Muslims, or Tiananmen Square earn nations the scorn of Chinese diplomats in a tantrum-like fashion.

The poor diplomatic display from the Chinese government ultimately seems to be a detriment unto itself.

While foreign policy expert Fareed Zakaria has made some bad takes before (support for Iraq War and Trump airstrikes in Syria), he makes wise points on China’s poor diplomatic behavior posing as a detriment to itself.

Soft Power Through Investment in Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East

Nations such as China are investing in the region of Africa for geopolitical, economic, and strategic reasons. 

China feels that it can invest in African infrastructure to increase support of smaller, poorer nations for Chinese agendas such as the One Belt, One Road initiative.

The One Belt, One Road initiative proposes heavy economic investment from China into landlocked Central Asian countries, the Middle East, and Africa to form an economic corridor reminiscent of the famed Silk Road. It seeks to reinvigorate trade on land through Central Asia.

The initiative also includes a maritime route going through places like Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, India, Greece, and Italy.

China’s goal is to win loyalty of nations along the One Belt, One Road initiative’s path to win regional allies and indebted vassals.

I recommend watching this video by CaspianReport for a thorough explanation. His channel overall is fantastic for those interested in geography and geopolitics.

Infrastructure such as mines and schools are being constructed by the Chinese to help African nations develop but also to gain their political support for Chinese initiatives on the world stage.

One African country that China is investing in is Namibia. The country of about 2.5 million people feels China’s influence on its economy and within the country itself.

Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.

With investments in Namibian infrastructure such as mines, roads, ports, and railways, China is improving life for Namibians.

“We welcomed China very much because, for the first time, it gave us a real alternative to a Western-driven agenda, whether it was South Africa or the Western world. The Chinese say, ‘we want you to be masters of your own destiny, so tell us what you want.’”

Calle Schlettwein, Namibia’s minister of finance

Ultimately, China is trying to buy these nations’ loyalty in a counter to the western world. Many in Namibia know that China doesn’t actually care about Namibians and that they are being used as pawns by the Chinese.

However, they know that by being influenced by China, everyday Namibians are still receiving an empowered economy and nation, which is worth it.

Some observers dub Chinese investment into countries such as Namibia “neo-colonialism.”

Much of Africa’s future will likely be intertwined with the hopes and desires of China and possibly with American and European influences resurging in an attempt to counter Chinese influence.

Soft Power in Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia

Aside from investing in smaller, African countries hoping to bring them into their bloc through infrastructural investment, China also focuses its soft power on larger nations.

Following a conflicted relationship with the United States over the decades, Iran now looks to China for support, investment, and trade. An illustrated timeline of deteriorating U.S.-Iranian relations can be found here.

Xi Jinping, Hassan Rouhani, and Ali Khamenei.

After seeing the trajectory of U.S.-Iranian relations, it seems only natural that Iran would turn to China.


“The partnership would vastly expand Chinese presence in banking, telecommunications, ports, railways and dozens of other projects. In exchange, China would receive a regular — and, according to an Iranian official and an oil trader, heavily discounted — supply of Iranian oil over the next 25 years. The document also describes deepening military cooperation, potentially giving China a foothold in a region that has been a strategic preoccupation of the United States for decades.”

From The New York Times’ “Defying U.S., China and Iran Near Trade and Military Partnership

China also invests heavily into Pakistan, acting as its largest provider of foreign direct investment (FDI). In Pakistan, China is buying “loss-making state-owned enterprises (SOEs)” from the Pakistani government.

Investments in raw materials, railways, airlines, and steel mills are Chinese priorities within Pakistan.

Xi Jinping and Pakistani president Imran Khan.

Soft Power in Australia and New Zealand

Australia and China are close trading partners, but issues over human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong have worsened relations.

Disagreements began with Australia speaking out against Chinese operations and claims in the dispute South China Sea.

In 2016, an Australian Senator Sam Dastyari came under fire for parroting the Chinese Communist Party on issues in the South China Sea. He resigned as senator, but many viewed the influence China had over the senator as reminiscent of the influence China holds over Australia as a whole.

As 5G service became more mainstream, Australia denied China’s large telecommunications company, Huawei access to network development in Australia. China and Australia have also placed tariffs on one another.

China placed tariffs on Australian barley, sparking a trade war between the two nations.

Following continued abuses in Tibet, Hong Kong, and in Xinjiang against the Uyghur people, only 23% of Australians now trust China to act responsibly in the world.

Xinjiang is home to most of China’s Uyghur people.

New Zealand now finds itself at a crossroads with China as well. Continued trade between the two nations can only occur at the current rate if New Zealand decides not to stand up against Chinese human rights abuses.

New Zealand’s foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta has come under fire by some in New Zealand and Australia for having too soft of an approach on China. Unlike the United States, Australia, Britain, and Canada who have all taken firm stances against human rights abuses in China, Mahuta is criticized for rejecting policy directions from the Five Eyes Alliance.

NZ foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta.

The Five Eyes Alliance is an intelligence-sharing agreement between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Mahuta said that “New Zealand has been very clear … not to invoke the Five Eyes as the first point of contact on messaging out on a range of issues.”

Critics claimed that New Zealand is putting its own economic interests over human rights.

“New Zealand figures other democracies can do the fighting. New Zealand can meanwhile sweet talk China and clean up businesswise.”

Sky News Host Andrew Bolt

Soft Power Through Social Media

Chinese soft power is prevalent online as well, taking hold of several popular social media platforms in the west.

TikTok, developed by Chinese tech company ByteDance is incredibly popular in the western world. A reported 100 million monthly active U.S. users used TikTok in 2020.

Aside from privacy concerns with the app, Chinese narratives are also being pushed on TikTok. Some TikTok videos are directly from Chinese influencers, while others are from westerners living in China.

This video from laowhy68 shows actual examples of Chinese soft power and pushing of narratives on TikTok.

In 2019, social media company Reddit confirmed that it took $150 million from Chinese media company Tencent. Many users expressed outrage over the fact that China was influencing an American company like Reddit.

On YouTube, China pushes news from Chinese news sites throughout the platform. South China Morning Post is a Chinese newspaper that posts many videos on YouTube having to do with a wide variety of news topics.

This channel has been recommended to me many times, and I’m sure it is recommended to users who consume political and news content on YouTube.

Soft Power Through Gaming

Concerns have grown over Chinse influence on video games and narratives pushed in the gaming world. Tencent, the same Chinese company that invested in Reddit is buying up video gaming studios across the western world.

NetEase is another Chinese company who has bought up foreign gaming studios.

Were China to successfully buy up the world’s video gaming studios, they would hold significant sway over global culture.

“Tencent keeps buying the #1 game in every niche in North America and Europe. This is important because games have cultural influence. And controlling the present and how reality is portrayed is very powerful. If Tencent were to buy a stake in every leading newspaper and TV company people would be up in arms, there would be political hearings. Instead they play the long game and they are buying the next generation’s media properties without any competition.”

Rodolfo Rosini, tech investor from CNBC’s “Chinese tech giants are snapping up gaming studios around the world

In the same way that the American video game series Call of Duty portrays America in a glorious, heroic light battling soulless Russians and evil Middle Eastern militants, Chinese games may paint the country in a similar light.

Conclusion

My overall opinion on China’s long-game campaigns may be an unpopular one, but I think that most of what China is doing falls within its rights as a sovereign nation. Aside from its internment of Uyghur Muslims and other human rights abuses, Chinese soft power is simply a byproduct of Chinese dominance in the region.

What differs Chinese investment in Central Asia from the U.S. enactment of the Marshall Plan? If no one in the West will help poor countries in Africa, what should stop China from doing so?

If China forms agreements with nations to peacefully create trade routes through their borders, what’s so wrong with that?

China’s soft power is perfectly reasonable for them to enact in its sphere of influence. In the same way that Western Europe and Latin America are American spheres of influence, the Middle East, Asia, and Oceania are growing to become a part of Chinese influence.

Soft power is more preferable than war, and most of what China is doing is within its rights as a wealthy, powerful nation in terms of geopolitics. Chinese success reveals the mistakes of U.S. foreign policy. Rather than utilizing soft power in Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East, the U.S. deployed hard power in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

This is an instance where the U.S. should emulate the Chinese approach of soft power, but I fear it may be too late.

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11 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I always learn something when I visit your blog, Quentin! I have mixed feelings about China and their global expansion. I am deeply concerned about their human rights abuses, which perhaps colours my view of them in other areas as well. I’m not particularly fond of the direction the world is taking these days … we’re all sharing the same planet and if the human species is to survive, then we’ll need to work together — all nations — and put aside the “us vs them” mentality, the fierce competitiveness. Thanks for some enlightenment, my friend!

    1. Jill,

      While I agree with the angle of unity that the world’s nations need, I am very pessimistic in something like that even happening. The global inaction on climate change is disheartening and the treatment of global vaccine distribution as a geopolitical race also makes me lose an amount of faith in our ability to work together as a species.

      I hope I’m wrong!
      Quentin

      1. While I fully support more unified international relations, disposal of all nuclear arms, etc., I didn’t say I thought it would actually happen. Heck, we can’t even achieve unity within our own country, let alone all the nations on the globe. I wish I believed it could happen, but … in truth, I think the human species is hurtling toward its own extinction, with nobody to blame but ourselves.

    2. Jill,

      I’ve also scheduled that post about the future of U.S.-Iranian relations that we talked about earlier. It should go live in about 7 hours.

      Quentin

      1. Awesome, Quentin! I can’t wait to read it, and I will plan to re-blog it in the afternoon! Thank you! I hope you’re enjoying your family time!

      2. Jill,

        Thanks, glad you’re excited. I am enjoying the last day here in California before flying back to Colorado tomorrow 🙂

        Quentin

  2. China is, in part, just following the example of how Western capitalists used business and missionaries to dominate parts of China. They are not better at it – just the latest to use money and social connections to advance their interests. In the background, the traditional pull and push between centralization and decentralization in China blunts their “progress” – reigning in their billionaires by jailing them, not the best way to promote growth in employment and finance. Investors are already looking at parts of the old Soviet Union for cheap labor, as well as Viet Nam as a result of Chinese growing – again – inability to tolerate unfettered Chinese entrepreneurs.

    1. Ned,

      Yes, China is following in the footsteps of those who did the same in the past. While the United States emphasizes armed attempts, sanctions, and covert operations to get their way in the short-term, Chinese focus on investing in neglected regions, diplomatic pressure, and cultural dominance are steps toward a long-term strategy.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Quentin

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