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China's Charm Offensive—Frustrations and Implications

From: Asia Policy
Number 15, January 2013
pp. 138-141 | 10.1353/asp.2013.0010

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In Japan and China as Charm Rivals: Soft Power in Regional Diplomacy, Jing Sun sets forth a systematic and insightful assessment of the efforts of China and Japan to develop and exert soft power on one another and in nearby East and Southeast Asia, significantly advancing our understanding of international dynamics in this important part of the world. With clear language, careful use of terminology, and logical presentation, Sun provides an effective definition of the soft power employed by Tokyo and Beijing, viewing the state apparatus as especially important in both countries' efforts at image-building in order to seek diplomatic and other goals. He finds that both governments more often than not have had a hard time achieving their respective goals, even as they sometimes compete with one another for influence in Asia and beyond. Readers will benefit from Sun's treatment of the concept of soft power; the role of the state in image-building, which naturally overlaps with state-directed propaganda and public-diplomacy efforts; and the limited effectiveness—and the reasons for such mediocre results—of Chinese and Japanese efforts to charm one another as well as neighbors in Southeast Asia, South Korea, and Taiwan.

China's Frustration

The volume shows significant frustration emerging among China's leaders in recent years. Chinese authorities have been disappointed by the limited results achieved by their strong efforts in the post-Cold War period to develop and enhance China's soft power through a well-publicized and generously funded "charm offensive" in Asia. This review delves more deeply into Sun's rightful attention to such frustration and its broader implications.

The scope of Sun's study is the relationships among the soft-power efforts of China and Japan and their targets—notably each others' elite and public opinion as well as elite and public opinion in neighboring countries. In the case of China, this reviewer argues that to understand the depth of frustration in China and the broader implications of the mediocre results of its image-building efforts, one needs also to examine the impact of such image-building on China's domestic elite and public opinion. Such an examination is deemed particularly important as domestic opinion increasingly influences the contemporary foreign policy decision-making of comparatively weak Chinese leaders, who are far removed from the strongman politics of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

Image-building in foreign affairs has featured throughout the history of the People's Republic of China (PRC). It has involved attentive efforts by the foreign ministry; an array of other government, party, and military organizations that deal with foreign affairs; various ostensibly nongovernmental organizations with close ties to the Chinese government, party, and military offices; and the massive publicity or propaganda apparatus of the Chinese administration. The opinions of these officials and nongovernmental representatives and media accounts provide sources used by international journalists, scholars, and officials in assessing Chinese foreign policy. On the whole, these groups endeavor to boost China's international stature while they condition people in China to think positively about their country's foreign relations.

Consistent with Sun's analysis, the effectiveness of such image-building abroad has been limited and often ephemeral, especially given the all-too-frequent and hard-to-predict sharp turns in Chinese behavior involving the use of intimidation, coercion, threats, and violence toward neighbors and other powers (notably, the United States) actively involved along China's periphery. Sun says that China's recent row with Japan and assertive territorial claims in the South China Sea "expose the difficulty of curbing ambition for the sake of placating neighbors" (p. 171). He further notes that "such wrestling is likely to continue, and that with the continued rise of hard power, the balance may tip toward fists rather than smiles," as seen in China's recent behavior toward Japan and Southeast Asian countries that dispute Chinese maritime territorial claims.

In contrast, however, image-building has been effective in shaping domestic Chinese elite and public opinion by conditioning it to repeatedly hear and see, and seemingly believe, the following salient assertions about Chinese foreign policy:

  • •   China's foreign policy is consistent in following principles in dealing with foreign issues that...


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