Is growing ‘soft power’ key to China’s influence?

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CHARM OFFENSIVE: HOW CHINA’S SOFT POWER IS TRANSFORMING THE WORLD

By Joshua Kurlantzick

Yale University Press, $26, 306 pages

REVIEWED BY STEVEN W. MOSHER

Joshua Kurlantzick has haunted the capitals of Asia, and everywhere he went he found China’s star on the rise.

Take Cambodia, for example, which suffered so much from the Maoist-inspired and Beijing-supported predations of the Khmer Rouge. Prime Minister Hun Sen used to call China “the root of all that is evil in Cambodia,” reports Mr. Kurlantzick, but now gushes that Phnom Penh’s relations with Beijing are “entering into the best stage in history.”

The Cambodian Prime Minister studiously avoids mentioning contentious issues like China’s damming of the upper reaches of the Mekong River, which is causing lakes and rivers across his already impoverished land to dry up and the fish catch — a primary source of protein for his poor countrymen — to plummet.

But the Middle Kingdom now has clout on continents and in countries far removed from those it has historically dominated. In the Middle East, China’s new best friend is Iran.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has threatened to destroy Israel in a nuclear holocaust, may not be welcome in most Western capitals, but he is feted in Beijing. Not only was he invited to address Chinese, Russian and Central Asian leaders at a June 2006 meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, he was allowed the rare privilege of addressing the Chinese masses on state television, assuring them that Iran’s and China’s interests were “identical.”

Although Ahmadinejad is a radical Islamist, all too ready to bash America and Israel, he maintains a strict silence on the persecution of his fellow Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.

Further afield, China has made major inroads into Africa and Latin America. Beijing has aggressively courted Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, Mr. Kurlantzick notes, “repeatedly inviting him on state visits to China, upgrading trade ties, and supporting Venezuela’s bid for a seat at the United Nations Security Council.”

Emboldened by China’s support, which he calls a “Great Wall” against American hegemony, Mr. Chavez now claims that Beijing and Caracas have forged a “strategic alliance.” He has vowed to reorient his massive oil industry away from America and toward China.

In fact, one can name a corrupt, dictatorial regime anywhere in the world — and Mr. Kurlantzick names many — and its closest major ally is invariably the People's Republic of China, all too ready to supply guns, butter or comradely encouragement to defy the United States. But Beijing is not just embracing fellow dictatorships. Developing world democracies, such as Grenada and Dominica, are being drawn into Beijing’s orbit as well.

After this promising start, however, Mr. Kurlantzick stumbles. What he disarmingly calls a “charm offensive” based largely on China’s supposedly growing “soft power” is in reality something far more ominous: It is the deliberate targeting of poor, developing nations with a potent combination of state-driven investment, trade, arms sales and aid (including bribes to high officials and secret subsidies to political parties), with the aim of cementing the allegiance of governing elites to Beijing.

When Harvard academic Joseph Nye invented the term “soft power” a decade ago, he defined it as “leading by example and attracting others to do what you want.” His examples were drawn primarily from the appeal of American ideals of freedom and democracy to peoples languishing in the Soviet bloc.

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