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China Turns On the Charm

By Bertil Lintner

‘Soft power’ is now part of Beijing’s foreign policy vocabulary

Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World, by Joshua Kurlantzick. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2007. 306 pages

As the six-nation talks in Beijing to solve the North Korean crisis—and, more recently, talks between US and Burmese officials, also in the Chinese capital—clearly show, China is now a player to be reckoned with in Asian diplomacy.

Despite its well-documented human rights abuses, China is seen by an increasing number of people across the globe as a more benign power than the US. In a 2005 Australian survey, barely more than half of those polled had “positive feelings” about the US, while nearly 70 percent viewed China positively. Twenty-five years ago, most Australians would have viewed China as a threat; now, as Joshua Kurlantzick writes in this important book, China may become the first nation since the fall of the Soviet Union that could seriously challenge the US for control of the international system. “As Beijing has looked outside its borders, it has altered its image across much of the globe, from threat to opportunity, from danger to benefactor,” Kurlantzick writes.

This, Kurlantzick argues, has been achieved through a concept called “soft power,” or leading by example and attracting others to do what you want. China, rather than Japan, is emerging as the main economic and political superpower in Asia, mainly because Japan failed to cultivate soft power. Tokyo seemed to believe that aid and investment was enough to win influence, while China has cultivated a more pro-active foreign policy. Moreover, with only a small diaspora in the developing world, Japan was unable to undertake the kind of outreach to overseas compatriots that Beijing can do with overseas Chinese communities.

And China’s charm offensive has paid off handsomely. In the 1970s, for example, China supported the communist insurgency in Thailand and was seen by the establishment in Bangkok as an enemy. Sino-Thai businessmen in those times downplayed their Chinese ancestry so as not to be perceived as a fifth column for China’s designs for the region. Today, as Kurlantzick writes, even “Thai politicians tout their Chinese background, partly because it seems popular with a public that views Beijing as cool, rich and attractive.”

Kurlantzick, now a special correspondent for the US magazine The New Republic, has covered Southeast Asia and China as a correspondent for US News & World Report and The Economist, and he draws on that experience to write the first book that examines the significance of China’s recent reliance on diplomacy, trade incentives, cultural and educational exchange opportunities, and other techniques to project a benign image of itself.

The book also deals extensively with Beijing’s influence over the generals in Rangoon and how China has taken advantage of Western boycotts to wield effective control over Burma.

While there may be no Chinese bases in Burma, as Australian scholar Andrew Selth argued in a recent academic paper from Griffith University in Brisbane, China has nevertheless helped the Burmese regime upgrade its naval facilities and supplied state-of-the art equipment to those bases. In return, as even Selth admits, China may “receive intelligence from the Burmese, derived from those installations.”

That is significant influence, and, despite the nationalistic fervor of the Burmese generals, they are hardly in a position to say no to China. Burma may not be “the 24th province of China,” as French journalists Louis and Andre Boucaud argued in an article in Le Monde Diplomatique on November 7, 2004, but it is well within China’s growing sphere of influence in the region.

At the same time, however, China may not be able to build on its soft power indefinitely, and Kurlantzick gives its Mekong River projects as an example of how China in this case has proven both uncooperative and meddling. It has dammed the river without consulting the countries downstream.

China is also in the process of building dams on the Salween River, which could have disastrous consequences for Burma. And while the generals in Rangoon may depend on China for their survival, Beijing’s policies are not popular with the Burmese population at large. If a new regime took over in Burma, China would have a lot to answer for.

America’s unpopularity in Asia is also very much tied to its present foreign policies: the Iraq adventure and the war on terror elsewhere. So, the situation may change after the next presidential election in 2008; the US has not entirely lost the world to China, as Kurlantzick also argues, but, in order to regain its appeal to the world, Washington has to consult more closely with democracies and democratic movements all over the world.

Those Burmese hoping for a US military intervention to rid them of the present dictatorship may be just dreamers, but Washington is, after all, a better champion for democracy in Burma than China.

This review first appeared in The Irrawaddy, September, 2007

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