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Soft Power: Resonating with the Preferences of a Target Country?

From: Asia Policy
Number 15, January 2013
pp. 132-134 | 10.1353/asp.2013.0004

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Jing Sun's book Japan and China as Charm Rivals: Soft Power in Regional Diplomacy is impressive and persuasive on at least two counts. First, it gives an excellent and stimulating analysis of soft power as a concept—one that explains its allure, practice, and limitations in international relations. Unlike most accounts of soft power, which focus on the motivations and the charm of a specific actor, Sun is sensitive to the context and history of the target state and society. He convincingly argues that a country's soft power is most appealing if it resonates with the preferences, values, and interests of that target state.

Second, Sun's decision to focus on Japan and China allows him to tease out the efficacy of soft power in concrete case studies of states with different regime types. To date, his account is the only one to comprehensively apply the concept to Sino-Japanese relations and those two countries' neighborly relations with Southeast Asia, South Korea, and Taiwan. Especially pleasing is his skill in weaving the theory and praxis of soft power with other factors in international relations such as history, geopolitics, political leadership, and economics. In doing so, Sun offers readers a fresh and balanced perspective on international relations in East Asia—the wielding of the iron fist (hard power) in the velvet glove (soft power).

Sun's findings are quite striking. In the case of China, despite its impressive economic growth and the mushrooming of Confucius Institutes abroad, Beijing's charm offensive has been quite limited beyond providing economic aid to states in Northeast and Southeast Asia. As for Japan, despite its colonization of Taiwan, the conquest of Southeast Asia during World War II, and its relative decline after the burst of its bubble economy, the country continues to exude appeal in these localities. Nonetheless, Japanese soft power has been less effective in China and South Korea, beyond popular culture, cuisine, and other commercial spheres. Simply put, charm in a limited consumer sphere does not necessarily translate into political capital.

Implicit in Sun's masterly comparison is the notion that Japan's greater appeal in Southeast Asia is in part due to Tokyo's relative success in articulating the Fukuda Doctrine in 1977 as its official blueprint for relations with that region. The doctrine's tenets include rejecting militarism, affirming Japan's equality with and support for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and fostering a "heart-to-heart" relationship with these countries. Arguably, the Fukuda Doctrine resonated with Southeast Asian preferences. Unfortunately, there is no "heart-to-heart" relationship between Japan and its two Northeast Asian neighbors, China and South Korea. In particular, the emotional chasm between China and Japan (due to the burden of history) appears unbridgeable.

Beijing, for its part, has always affirmed that it supports ASEAN as the driver of East Asian multilateralism, and the Chinese economy is a huge magnet for Southeast Asian trade. However, China's nominally Communist regime (which is still an authoritarian one-party state) and excessive claims to approximately 80% of the South China Sea have severely limited China's charm in Southeast Asia. Though Beijing may be conducting "smile diplomacy," the region is well aware that its giant neighbor has sharp teeth (growing even sharper and longer) and will therefore be wary of all Chinese offensives, hard or soft. Acquiring an aircraft carrier fleet and pressuring Cambodia (the 2012 ASEAN chair) to lean toward Beijing in South China Sea disputes have done little to help China overcome Southeast Asian ambivalence.

My only reservation about Sun's superb book is that China and Japan may not be consciously engaging in soft-power competition with each other in South Korea and Southeast Asia, although this does appear to be the case in Taiwan. Tokyo adopted a softer approach toward Southeast Asia after the violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in Bangkok and Jakarta during Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei's visits in 1974. Japan's strategic shift to a good-neighbor policy had little to do with competition with China. In recent years, Beijing and Tokyo have wooed Southeast Asia with free trade agreements and economic partnerships while jostling to protect their...

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