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Soft Power and Leadership in East Asia

From: Asia Policy
Number 15, January 2013
pp. 134-137 | 10.1353/asp.2013.0007

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Jing Sun's new book Japan and China as Charm Rivals: Soft Power in Regional Diplomacy is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature addressing the complex foreign relations of East Asia. Sun explores how China and Japan have sought to utilize "soft power" in their relations with each other and neighboring East Asian countries, and he provides some long-needed clarity and dimensionality to this analytically loose concept. Sun points out, for example, that the key aspect of soft power is "power," and that observers often vastly overestimate the influence of popular culture or commercial products on national attitudes and foreign policies. In chapters detailing Japan's and China's wooing of Southeast Asia, South Korea, and Taiwan, Sun delves into the problems and processes of pursuing foreign policy goals through a soft power—or charm offensive—strategy. Ultimately, he concludes that while leaders in both Japan and China see soft power as important, neither country holds "idealistic perceptions" of soft power. The book concludes that soft power is "embedded in international relations realities: states are still competing for limited resources...and threats of the use of force are real" (p. 170).

Sun has performed a valuable task by deeply exploring the concept of soft power and its current utility in explaining Chinese or Japanese foreign policies in the Asia-Pacific region. Given the detailed and careful manner in which he makes his theoretical arguments and the wealth of empirical data brought to bear on this issue, his conclusions appear convincing. Sun shows that soft power does not appear to significantly change states' underlying strategic orientation or their preferences, and that by itself soft power also rarely even changes the perceptions held by other countries. Cultural or commercial success has likewise done little to change underlying perceptions. Sun's careful study of Southeast Asian countries' perceptions of Japan, for example, reveals that "the local desire to see Japan turn its economic might into political capital was lukewarm" (p. 72).

Sun's conclusions lead to a somewhat interesting implication: why should we even study a fuzzy theoretical concept that has little empirical evidence of its existence, much less that it is consequential for international relations? It might be tempting to conclude that only hard power is driving relations between countries. The distribution of capabilities may, in fact, be the fundamental driver of regional relations. But that is not at all clear, and if Sun had explored concepts linked to soft power, he could have widened the impact of his work by addressing theoretical and empirical issues that lie at the heart of the study of East Asian international relations and truly interrogated the way in which the pursuit of hard power interacts with other state goals.

The concept of soft power—intuitively plausible but empirically difficult to measure—actually provides a lever by which to explore a much wider set of concepts that are linked to, but not entirely subsumed by, this concept. Leadership, status, and legitimacy each appear to be central to foreign relations in East Asia. Like soft power, these concepts derive from the values and ideas a country espouses, and like soft power they are linked only imperfectly to the material capabilities of a country.

For example, the concept of leadership necessarily implies that there are followers, as well as that there exists a recognized social rank-order that places leaders above followers. The two are not equal in voice, responsibility, standing, or influence. Leadership—like soft power—can only emerge if there is consensus on what constitutes leadership and who gets to lead. John Ikenberry and Charles Kupchan argue that, more than being simple military predominance, "the exercise of power—and hence the mechanism through which compliance is achieved—involves the projection by the hegemon of a set of norms and their embrace by leaders in other nations." That is, leadership is inherently a social phenomenon, and the question of why some states may be willing to follow is as important as that of why other states wish to lead. Leadership thus incorporates soft power but also more widely encompasses ideas about national identity, regional integration, and perceptions of one's own and other...


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