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Same Bed, Different Dreams: China and Japan as Soft-Power Rivals

From: Asia Policy
Number 15, January 2013
pp. 141-145 | 10.1353/asp.2013.0014

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Readers of Jing Sun's new book Japan and China as Charm Rivals: Soft Power in Regional Diplomacy may expect it to deliver a conclusive verdict on who is winning the image war between China and Japan. That kind of pronouncement, however, is not found here. Rather than producing another treatise on Sino-Japanese competition per se, Sun mostly focuses on the contrasting challenges facing Beijing and Tokyo as they have sought to win the hearts and minds of neighboring countries over the past several decades.

This is probably the wiser angle to take, given that the very premise of a head-to-head soft-power rivalry between China and Japan is problematic. As Sun rightly points out, China's main soft-power objective has been to reassure neighbors that it is a rising yet unthreatening superpower, while Japan's main objective has been to persuade regional states that it still is in fact a superpower. Given these vastly different goals, a soft-power rivalry between China and Japan, in the strictest sense, seems contrived. It is even more difficult, then, to assess who is winning and losing the competition.

Largely sidestepping this problem, Sun turns his attention to academic themes that may or may not be compelling to a broad readership. Sun argues that the current discourse on soft power has devolved into a conceptually messy hodgepodge of international relations theory and popular culture. He reminds us to refocus attention on the "power" side of the equation, and more specifically on the role of state actors (i.e., governments and their leaders) in crafting diplomatic strategies aimed at wooing countries.

Here is where the contrasts between China's and Japan's soft power come into sharp relief. Sun highlights these differences in chapters that examine the postwar history of China's and Japan's charm strategies toward Southeast Asia, South Korea, and Taiwan. In each case study, Beijing's and Tokyo's approaches to soft power exhibit distinct advantages and disadvantages. Japan can appeal to the democratic values and normative aspirations of target nations. China's value system, by contrast, has been a harder sell, although its ability to lavish resources on recipient nations may give it the upper hand over an increasingly resource-drained and politically flat-footed Japan.

In the case of Southeast Asia, Sun illustrates how neither Japan nor China enjoyed much soft-power capital as the region struggled to emerge from the colonial era and obtain greater independence from dominant outside powers. A turning point occurred in 1977, when Japanese prime minister Takeo Fukuda announced a new diplomatic initiative that would combine economic aid with a renewed emphasis on an "equal partnership" with the region. The Fukuda Doctrine thus appealed to Southeast Asia's normative yearning for equality and provided an attractive non-Western model for economic growth. Although this approach proved largely successful at turning around Japan's postwar image, Sun argues that over the past two decades Japan's soft power in Southeast Asia has faded along with its economic prowess.

China, on the other hand, took longer to develop an effective charm offensive toward Southeast Asia. The Asian financial crisis in 1997, however, provided an opportunity for Beijing to score soft-power points in the region by deciding not to devalue its currency (a move it lauded as "self-sacrificing") and by emphasizing China's respect for many of the principles eventually embodied in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), such as equality, multilateralism, and noninterference in the internal affairs of other states. Meanwhile, China has become the economic engine of growth in the region, leading Sun to conclude that "the momentum is on China's side" as it overtakes Japan for influence in Southeast Asia (p. 81).

History, not surprisingly, is another major handicap for Japan's soft-power ambitions, but Sun asserts that China's own legacy as an imperial hegemon continues to cast a shadow over its contemporary relations in the region. This means that neither country can claim significant soft-power gains with a nation such as South Korea, which warily resists both Chinese and Japanese charm offensives as potential threats to its self-identity and independence...


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