Tuesday, February 20, 2007

FT does Chinese "soft power"




In an article in today's FT (here, subscription required), Gideon Rachman argues that China's "soft power policy is working." It takes three or four paragraphs of anecdotal examples (Mandarin commentary on British football being broadcast in Beijing and the like), but the article's subtext soon becomes apparent: China, according to Rachman, is quickly catching up to the US in its use of soft power.

DeTocq is left scratching his head on this one: why the comparison? Why is Chinese and American soft power framed in this zero-sum-game mentality by which, Rachman argues, for one country to ascend, the other must decline? Here's a good quote that cuts to the meat of Rachman's point: "For a rich, free powerful country to lost a soft power contest to the US seems all but impossible... But in the global battle for hearts and minds, China does have one advantage. It hasn't started any wars lately."

True enough.

But who cares?

DeTocq is hardly a China expert, but the distinction doesn't seem necessary. Soft power is used as a diplomatic means to serve a country's political and economic ends. Assuming third party governments and companies are relatively rational actors, DeTocq can't think of any situation where China's soft power ascention has a severly negative outcome for the US:

Is the point that this battle royale will somehow effect US or Chinese investment in a third country? Perhaps it might on the margins, but most free market businesses take profit over image, and most dictator-run markets (some of which are being coddled by China without much competition. Just ask Robbie Mugabe) aren't worth the Western investment anyway.

Would China's soft power ascention cause the US to lose a vote in the UN Security Council? No, China can wave that veto flag strongly enough all by its lonesome, thank you.

Would it cause governments to chose sides in a US-China war? Nevermind the overall unlikelihood of that, but generally speaking, China's not likely to face down NATO (even with the likes of Iran or big, bad Zimbabwe in its corner).

Point being that, sure, China's soft power/image/charm offensive might be clicking right now, but DeTocq can't see too many instances where that would directly cost significant American dollars, or (any) lives. Over the last few years, the world has experienced so much black-and-white/us-vs.-them framing of international politics that perhaps it's time we stopped looking at these issues in directly competitive terms. If China gets a little bit stronger, good for them -- there's not much anyone can do to stop them now. Instead, the international community should look to accomodate their growth (economically and diplomatically) and profit it from it (again, economically and diplomatically) instead of fearing it.

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