A Case of Soft Power Failure

As any political science major could tell you, in the traditional IR discourse, “power” is defined as the ability of a given state to make other states do what they want. Power is typically measured as a combination of military and economic power, and economic power is considered to be fungible — that is, it can become military power.

In Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye’s reformulation, “soft power” is defined as the ability of a state to make other states do what they want absent economic and military pressure. Soft power is the attractiveness of a country and its government; it makes states liked and makes other states pay attention to their ideas. There are various measures of soft power, but generally it’s described as the cultural, moral, legal, and ideological clout of a given state. Traditional concepts of power are defined as “hard power.”

Although China has focused on soft power development in its relationship with most of the Global South, in China’s near-abroad, the relationship is defined by hard power. In the case of Japan (the Senkakus), the Philippines (the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys), Vietnam (the Spratlys and Mekong River watershed), India (Arunachal Pradesh), and elsewhere, China has used aggressive displays of military force, economic sanctions, and “forward” development such as building highways into disputed territories or establishing outposts at sea. Within ASEAN itself, China has utilized economic power to cultivate patron-client relations with Cambodia and (increasingly) Thailand, which has left ASEAN unable to reach a consensus on the best way to deal with the South China Sea disputes.

For the rest we will focus exclusively on the South China Sea claimants. There’s no disputing that China has gone from friendly to deeply negative relations with most of the countries involved. Some of them, like Brunei, hold their nose and remain officially neutral. They value China as a market for the oil they already have rather than they oil and gas they might discover in the Spratlys. (It helps China that Brunei and Malaysia are busy with their own overlapping claims.) Vietnam, of course, is a rival of China, but the Philippines had been extremely friendly to China during the Jiang era and the start of the Hu Jintao years, only to see the relationship sour over maritime claims.

The result of China’s approach in the South China Sea is a soft power deficit in the region. Even countries which are friendly to China, such as Singapore, have grown wary of Chinese military claims. Singapore values free navigation on the seas, and China’s claims treat the South China Sea not merely as an EEZ but also a territorial sea, which runs counter to Singapore’s interests. Singapore, like the Philippines, had previously been extremely friendly to China, with Lee Kwan Yew a respected figure among Chinese politicians and businessmen. Chinese media were quick to quote Lee when he praised Chinese policies and the industriousness of the Chinese people, but they’ve been noticeably silent when he warns against excess Chinese politico-military pressure in the South China Sea or calls on China to settle disputes according to UNCLOS.

The key issue for China is that while she demonstrates an economic and military willingness to dominate the South China Sea, she has yet to prove herself a benevolent actor. The money is certainly there. China has bought Cambodia’s allegiance to the tune of $9 billion. What’s more, the military resources are there. China almost immediately responded to the last major typhoon to hit the Philippines by sending the PLAN to occupy rocks and reefs in the Scarborough Shoal that the Philippines had to abandon because of the storm. But China has consistently failed to act in a way that increases the PRC’s soft power in its near-abroad, even as military and economic moves cast it in an ever-hegemonic light.

This all feeds into media narratives about China. Some of them are very unfair, but the South China Sea has given the media an almost perfect David-and-Goliath tale, which is the favorite narrative framework for Western reporters. The Philippines is the biggest underdog in all of Southeast Asia, and many reporters who once rooted for American troops to leave the Philippines (we were Goliath then) now, in light of Chinese advances along the Nine Dash Line, root for Americans to return. When it appeared China was unwilling to donate more than $100,000 plus matching funds from the Chinese Red Cross to the Philippines, and moreover, when China failed to respond diplomatically to the crisis, the media went after them with a vengeance.

Before China released the latest round of aid, the media’s storyline of China “punishing the Philippines” was easy to accept. I accepted it, I think most of us did. By pledging more funds, China proved us wrong. (Ironically, some 84% of Chinese netizens would’ve proven us right.) Yet China unquestionably wasted an opportunity to take the lead in helping the Philippines. The money being sent will help save lives and restore order. But China isn’t dispatching aid as a regional or world leader, it’s doing what’s expected of it as a member of the international community. The Chinese contribution is unremarkable, and Chinese condolences came late.

The missed opportunity — the soft power failure — in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan was that China did not even attempt to behave as America, Britain, France, or even Russia might’ve behaved if such a disaster happened in their backyard. Part of that is institutional; I agree with those who say that China lacks sufficient organizations to distribute international aid, but shouldn’t we also ask why China lags in humanitarian aid capability even as we are constantly reminded of the “Beijing consensus” and how Chinese aid has been transformative in Africa?

This isn’t a new story, actually. After the Indonesian Tsunami, China insisted on helping with construction efforts but not resettling refugees, citing — in a very off-putting way — the Chinese policy of “non-interference in domestic affairs.” Then, as now, people lamented China’s narrow “hard power” concept of disaster assistance. History repeats. Beijing might simply be tone deaf to “soft power” and unable to see how its actions play into the perception that China is big enough to take away from the Philippines, but not big enough to give when it counts. Fair or unfair, right or wrong, the Philippines and the rest of ASEAN will remember how China responded to Typhoon Haiyan, and they will act accordingly.