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Chinese Soft Power in Southeast Asia (Part I)

How has China portrayed itself as the natural guardian of developing countries?

July 2, 2007

How has China portrayed itself as the natural guardian of developing countries?

In November 2000, Jiang Zemin made his first visit to Cambodia. Arriving at the airport in Cambodia's capital, the normally stiff Chinese leader offered a brief greeting to his Cambodian hosts. He was whisked into a motorcade that rumbled through the streets.

But on this morning, the cityscape resembled that of a papal visit to a devoutly Catholic nation. Thousands of Cambodian children lined the streets, waving tiny Chinese flags or small photographs of Jiang's face.

The kids cheered for Jiang as his open car toured through the city, chanting like he was David Beckham, rather than an elderly politician with thick glasses and an oily, swept-back hairdo.

China had quietly laid the groundwork for Jiang's visit. Beijing had become Cambodia's major provider of foreign aid. Chinese language programs dominated downtown Phnom Penh, and one Chinese-language school alone drew 14,000 students.

Cambodian kids who once would have headed to France or the United States for higher education now looked to universities in Shanghai.

Cambodia is hardly unique. Since the late 1990s, perceptions of China across the developing world have been transformed, and countries have come to view China as a partner, and even a friend.

This transformation is partly due to a growth in China's soft power — the attractiveness of China's culture, diplomacy, businesses and arts.

Until the past decade, China exerted minimal soft power. But by the late 1990s, the Chinese leadership seems to have made a decision that its hard power was still limited. In the mid-1990s, China had tried to signal Beijing's rising military strength to the world by moves like sending ships to disputed reefs in the South China Sea in 1995.

This backfired. "China's provocative military exercises … frightened much of Southeast Asia," argues Rommel C. Banlaoi, a former analyst in the Philippines' Department of National Defense.

In the past decade, then, China has marshaled its soft power — particularly by portraying itself as the natural guardian of developing countries.

"It was very clear that at meetings of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, that China was looking to be the spokesperson of the Third World countries," said Federico Macaranas, a Filipino scholar.

Another aspect of China's appeal to developing nations involves Beijing portraying China as a potential ideal. China utilizes a model of top-down control of development in which political reform is sidelined for economic reform.

And on visits abroad, Chinese officials do not shy away from advertising the benefits of its socioeconomic model.

"China … has created a miracle by feeding nearly 22% of the world's population on less than 10% of the world's arable land. The living standards of its 1.3 billion people are constantly improving," noted one white paper issued by the Chinese government.

As China's engagement with the developing world has become more sophisticated, its tools of soft power have become more sophisticated as well. In the past decade, China has upgraded its public diplomacy.

China's public diplomacy efforts reinforce the concept of peaceful development — efforts like museum exhibits in Malaysia to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the voyages of Zheng He, a Chinese admiral who sailed across the world, encountering but never conquering other nations.

Beijing also has created a Chinese version of the Peace Corps to send young Chinese on long-term volunteer service projects to developing nations like Laos.

China has upgraded the newswire Xinhua and expanded its output in languages other than English and Chinese — and has expanded the international broadcasting of CCTV, Chinese television.

As China has upgraded its public diplomacy, it also has invested in improving its diplomatic corps. Over the past fifteen years, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has begun to retire older diplomats, replacing them with a young generation of envoys who speak better English and local languages.

One 2005 study suggested that one-half of the country's 4,000 diplomats are less than thirty-five years old. Consequently, top Chinese diplomats in nations like Thailand now often have done multiple rotations in those countries before rising to the rank of ambassador, developing extensive local contacts.

Promotion of Chinese culture and language are major components of this public diplomacy. Beijing now funds Confucius Institutes, Chinese-language schools created at leading local universities.

Beijing also has tried to push instruction in Mandarin and in Chinese culture in overseas primary schools, partly by signing agreements with countries like Thailand to help integrate Chinese into public schools' curricula.

China's economic tools of soft power also have become more sophisticated.

According to a study of Chinese aid by Henry Yep of National Defense University in Washington, in 2003, China's aid to the Philippines was roughly four times greater than U.S. aid to Manila, China's aid to Laos was three times greater than U.S. aid — and China's aid to Indonesia was nearly double U.S. aid.

And China's embrace of free trade also bolsters its image. In addition to a free trade agreement with Southeast Asia, Beijing is negotiating more than fifteen free trade agreements with other nations, all at the same time.

Finally, over the past decade the Chinese government has not only lifted restrictions on migration within China but also made it vastly easier for Chinese to leave the country for business and tourism.

Partly as a result, Chinese migration is transforming the demographic makeup of northern mainland Southeast Asia, from northern Burma to northern Vietnam. Because of outmigration, ethnic Chinese now dominate entire towns in places like Luang Namtha, in northern Laos.

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World by Josh Kurlantzick. Copyright 2007, Yale University Press. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Read Part II here.