Wooing the World

Charm Offensiveby By Joshua KurlantzickYale Univ. Press. 320p $26
China seems to undergo dramatic change nearly every decade, giving China watchers new stories to tell. Joshua Kurlantzick, a reporter with experience in Asia who is now a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, focuses on a new, more nuanced and effective Chinese diplomacy, something he calls a charm offensive. Chinas rapid economic growthand the ability of its entrenched political elite to safeguard its position while overseeing that growthhas evoked admiration and respect among elites and citizens of other nations. Part of the charm offensive is to nourish that admiration and leverage it to advance Chinese interests abroad. At the same time, as any rapid growth in power carries a threat, a charm offensive attempts to calm whatever fears others might have. Chinas peaceful rise will not come at the cost of any other country, declared Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in 2004, will not stand in the way of any other country, nor pose a threat to any other country.

Kurlantzick takes the reader from Asia to Africa to Latin America to watch the charm offensive at work, blending his own experiences and interviews with the work of other journalists and scholars to describe Chinese foreign aid, trade, expressions of friendship, cultural exchanges and the like. To put an academic gloss on his treatment, Kurlantzick has borrowed the concept of soft power from the work of Joseph Nye, an international relations scholar and former Defense Department official. Nye has for some time (most recently in his book Soft Power) argued that we misunderstand the dynamics of world politics if we look only at hard powerparticularly military power and the use of potent threats and promises to affect the behavior of other states. Surely, argues the soft power theorist, the image of the state in the minds of othersthe attractiveness of its culture, the things it stands for, the meaning of its historical experiencecan influence that behavior as well.

To show soft power at work, Kurlantzick marshals a variety of indicators like opinion studies, interest in Chinese culture and language, respect for Chinese officials, and treatment of diaspora Chinese. He expands the soft power argument to include the economic relationships and agreements China makes with the rest of the world. But tracing the quiet play of such ties in shaping state behavior is a difficult, long-term assignment. It is easier for Kurlantzick to argue that for the Chinese, soft power means anything outside of the military and security realm, including not only popular culture and public diplomacy but also more coercive economic and diplomatic levers like aid and investment and participation in multilateral organizations. When China, for instance, conditions its foreign aid on the recipients stance on the question of Taiwanese independence (which China bitterly opposes), this is, for Kurltanzick, still soft power and thus part of the charm offensive. Or in Zambia, where the Chinese ambassador in 2006 warned that Beijing might cut off diplomatic ties [and thus its aid and investment] if voters picked an opposition candidate.

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Surely these are examples of hard powernot as hard as a threatened military invasion, of course, but still an attempt to force compliance by waving a stick rather than applying charm. The more we mislabel an action, the more confused we can become about what China is doing and with what success. Many have claimed that China today has gained respect from its sticks rather than its smiles.

In spite of its conceptual problems, Charm Offensiveis an instructive look at contemporary Chinese foreign policy. It reports on the failures of the offensive as well as its successes. It points out the downside: China often shows no concern for the nature of the regime it deals with (and that in itself can add to Chinas charm), and Chinese economic practices are often hostile to workers and the environment, blind to corporate irresponsibility and likely to produce a vast disparity in benefits. At the same time, Charm Offensive notes the increasing contributions China has made to providing economic and technical assistance, supporting multinational efforts (including peacekeeping) and defusing international crises (like North Koreas nuclear weapons program). It recounts how China has urged others to be cautious about challenging the United States, in pressing Venezuelas government not to reorient its oil relationship precipitously with the United States.

This is a measured rather than alarmist view of Chinas efforts, as is Kurlantzicks discussion of the implications for the United States. He argues that the growth of Chinas soft power is partially a function of the decline in Americas soft power (a decline accelerated by the current Bush administrations policy choices), and that decline must be addressed. And while the author acknowledges that Chinas charm offensive may create a threat to the United States, he also suggests that the growth of Chinese soft power may prove to be mutually beneficial, as both are major energy consumers and desire global stability in order to access resources like oil and gas; neither has any desire to see a nuclear North Korea or a nuclear standoff in South Asia; both want to combat H.I.V., avian flu, and other transnational disease threats; both are committed to counterterrorism and counternarcotics; both desire continued reductions in barriers to free trade; both want to prevent failed states in the developing world.

Charm Offensive helps us imagine the growth of Chinas soft power and meaningful cooperation with the United States. But there are two critical, interrelated limitations in Kurlantzicks analysis. First, it lacks historical sensitivity. China has mounted other charm offensives; they proved short-lived. In the mid-1950s, for instance, China sought to persuade its Asian neighbors that a revolutionary Marxist state could live in harmony with them. Second, Kurlantzick treats the Chinese political system as a cohesive, rational decision-making unit, rather than an often fractious set of leaders and bureaucracies that advocate competing policies in an uncertain world. The success or failure of those policies can have a profound impact on the power held by members of Chinas elite. The 1950s charm offensive, spearheaded by Zhou Enlai, was quickly undercut by Maos attempt to impose the Great Leap Forward (followed by the Cultural Revolution) on a reluctant party and populace, and by the unresolved issues that bedevil any states foreign policyat the time, the future of Taiwan and unrelenting American hostility.

History and Communist Party politics thus suggest a short life for the current charm offensive. But history is also the story of surprises. Joshua Kurlantzick and the reader might well ponder what it is about todays China and its foreign policy that would give some permanence to his argument.

China seems to undergo dramatic change nearly every decade, giving China watchers new stories to tell. Joshua Kurlantzick, a reporter with experience in Asia who is now a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, focuses on a new, more nuanced and effective Chinese diplomacy, something he calls a charm offensive. Chinas rapid economic growthand the ability of its entrenched political elite to safeguard its position while overseeing that growthhas evoked admiration and respect among elites and citizens of other nations. Part of the charm offensive is to nourish that admiration and leverage it to advance Chinese interests abroad. At the same time, as any rapid growth in power carries a threat, a charm offensive attempts to calm whatever fears others might have. Chinas peaceful rise will not come at the cost of any other country, declared Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in 2004, will not stand in the way of any other country, nor pose a threat to any other country.

Kurlantzick takes the reader from Asia to Africa to Latin America to watch the charm offensive at work, blending his own experiences and interviews with the work of other journalists and scholars to describe Chinese foreign aid, trade, expressions of friendship, cultural exchanges and the like. To put an academic gloss on his treatment, Kurlantzick has borrowed the concept of soft power from the work of Joseph Nye, an international relations scholar and former Defense Department official. Nye has for some time (most recently in his book Soft Power) argued that we misunderstand the dynamics of world politics if we look only at hard powerparticularly military power and the use of potent threats and promises to affect the behavior of other states. Surely, argues the soft power theorist, the image of the state in the minds of othersthe attractiveness of its culture, the things it stands for, the meaning of its historical experiencecan influence that behavior as well.

To show soft power at work, Kurlantzick marshals a variety of indicators like opinion studies, interest in Chinese culture and language, respect for Chinese officials, and treatment of diaspora Chinese. He expands the soft power argument to include the economic relationships and agreements China makes with the rest of the world. But tracing the quiet play of such ties in shaping state behavior is a difficult, long-term assignment. It is easier for Kurlantzick to argue that for the Chinese, soft power means anything outside of the military and security realm, including not only popular culture and public diplomacy but also more coercive economic and diplomatic levers like aid and investment and participation in multilateral organizations. When China, for instance, conditions its foreign aid on the recipients stance on the question of Taiwanese independence (which China bitterly opposes), this is, for Kurltanzick, still soft power and thus part of the charm offensive. Or in Zambia, where the Chinese ambassador in 2006 warned that Beijing might cut off diplomatic ties [and thus its aid and investment] if voters picked an opposition candidate.

Surely these are examples of hard powernot as hard as a threatened military invasion, of course, but still an attempt to force compliance by waving a stick rather than applying charm. The more we mislabel an action, the more confused we can become about what China is doing and with what success. Many have claimed that China today has gained respect from its sticks rather than its smiles.

In spite of its conceptual problems, Charm Offensive is an instructive look at contemporary Chinese foreign policy. It reports on the failures of the offensive as well as its successes. It points out the downside: China often shows no concern for the nature of the regime it deals with (and that in itself can add to Chinas charm), and Chinese economic practices are often hostile to workers and the environment, blind to corporate irresponsibility and likely to produce a vast disparity in benefits. At the same time, Charm Offensive notes the increasing contributions China has made to providing economic and technical assistance, supporting multinational efforts (including peacekeeping) and defusing international crises (like North Koreas nuclear weapons program). It recounts how China has urged others to be cautious about challenging the United States, in pressing Venezuelas government not to reorient its oil relationship precipitously with the United States.

This is a measured rather than alarmist view of Chinas efforts, as is Kurlantzicks discussion of the implications for the United States. He argues that the growth of Chinas soft power is partially a function of the decline in Americas soft power (a decline accelerated by the current Bush administrations policy choices), and that decline must be addressed. And while the author acknowledges that Chinas charm offensive may create a threat to the United States, he also suggests that the growth of Chinese soft power may prove to be mutually beneficial, as both are major energy consumers and desire global stability in order to access resources like oil and gas; neither has any desire to see a nuclear North Korea or a nuclear standoff in South Asia; both want to combat H.I.V., avian flu, and other transnational disease threats; both are committed to counterterrorism and counternarcotics; both desire continued reductions in barriers to free trade; both want to prevent failed states in the developing world.

Charm Offensive helps us imagine the growth of Chinas soft power and meaningful cooperation with the United States. But there are two critical, interrelated limitations in Kurlantzicks analysis. First, it lacks historical sensitivity. China has mounted other charm offensives; they proved short-lived. In the mid-1950s, for instance, China sought to persuade its Asian neighbors that a revolutionary Marxist state could live in harmony with them. Second, Kurlantzick treats the Chinese political system as a cohesive, rational decision-making unit, rather than an often fractious set of leaders and bureaucracies that advocate competing policies in an uncertain world. The success or failure of those policies can have a profound impact on the power held by members of Chinas elite. The 1950s charm offensive, spearheaded by Zhou Enlai, was quickly undercut by Maos attempt to impose the Great Leap Forward (followed by the Cultural Revolution) on a reluctant party and populace, and by the unresolved issues that bedevil any states foreign policyat the time, the future of Taiwan and unrelenting American hostility.

History and Communist Party politics thus suggest a short life for the current charm offensive. But history is also the story of surprises. Joshua Kurlantzick and the reader might well ponder what it is about todays China and its foreign policy that would give some permanence to his argument.

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