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Chinese Soft Power in Southeast Asia (Part II)

Will China’s growing clout in the developing world eventually create blowback against it?

July 3, 2007

Will China's growing clout in the developing world eventually create blowback against it?

In the short term, China has enjoyed significant success with its charm offensive. As one Southeast Asian diplomat notes, it is almost impossible now to hear any Southeast Asian leaders question China's rise, a sharp contrast from ten years ago.

Indeed, polling data (from organizations like the Program on International Policy Attitudes) show publics in most nations now have a positive impression of China — and the country is usually viewed more positively than the United States.

And these trends are not limited to the developing world. Even in Australia, a longtime U.S. ally, polls taken by the Lowy Institute, a respected research organization, suggest that the Australian public now views China as favorably as the United States.

The public sentiment is reflected in Chinese language and cultural studies, which have skyrocketed in popularity in the developing world. Between 2002 and 2004, the number of Cambodian students in China grew by nearly 20%, while the number of Indonesians rose nearly 50% and the number of Vietnamese rose nearly 90%.

Chinese businesspeople and policymakers, meanwhile, are increasingly given the type of welcome and access in developing nations that once was reserved for U.S. and Japanese elites.

Sometimes they receive grander welcomes. While visiting Indonesia in 2003, Wen Jiabao was toasted with frequent ovations. In contrast, when President Bush visited Indonesia the same year, many Indonesian cultural and political leaders would not even meet with him.

In places like Algeria, Nigeria or Vietnam, meanwhile, local policymakers seem convinced that if they learn from China, they could duplicate China's success in promoting development and combating poverty.

In Vietnam, for example, younger policy makers study the "Chinese model" of development — the model of slowly opening the economy while retaining control of the political system.

What will China's charm offensive mean in the long run? There are signs China's engagement with the world will prompt Beijing to wield its soft influence responsibly.

China has begun to mediate other nations' disputes, as it did when Thailand and Cambodia nearly came to war in 2003. What's more, some of China's soft power hardly comes at the United States’ expense.

The United States remains the major investor in the developing world, and it stands as the biggest source of foreign film, television, popular music and books around the globe.

But as China's soft power grows, it could begin to encounter blowback against it. As China becomes more powerful, other nations will begin to see beyond its benign face to a more complicated reality.

They will realize that despite China's promises of noninterference, when it comes to core interests, China — like any great power — will think of itself first.

China could create blowback against itself in other ways, too. Still a developing country itself, China could overplay its hand, making the kind of promises on aid and investment that it cannot fulfill.

China's exporting of its own poor standards on labor issues, the environment and corporate governance could also foster blowback against Beijing.

In one recent ranking of eighty nations' adherence to corporate responsibility, China placed 66th, well below other developing economies like India.

And in the long run, if countries like Burma ever made the transition to freer governments, China could face a sizable backlash for its past support for their authoritarian rulers. "We know who stands behind the [Burmese] government," one Burmese businessman told me last year. "We'll remember."

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 I here.