- Soft Power and the Rise of China: An Assessment
China’s dramatic economic and military growth over the past three decades has spurred a new focus by China scholars on China’s “soft power.”1 Sheng Ding’s The Dragon’s Hidden Wings: How China Rises with Its Soft Power seeks to make a theoretical and empirical contribution to this literature, but for the most part he plows old theoretical ground and offers minimal empirical analysis of China’s soft power. The three challenges facing Beijing, in terms of its “use” of soft power, are how can it enhance its soft power by promoting Chinese culture; how can Beijing enhance its leadership and “agenda setting,” especially in the developing world; and how can China reassure its neighbors, and countries such as the United States and Japan that have core interests in Asia, that China’s rise will be peaceful, given its past history of domination in Asia. These issues are all addressed in the book, but the tedious analysis of “great debates” such as neorealism and neoliberalism, globalization, and constructivism, which take up the first third of the book, and the second third of the book, which is devoted to the “structure” of China soft power, detract from what should have been a nuanced analysis of the changing nature of China’s soft power. How China actually tries to wield this power in places such as Africa and Latin America, and even in the United States and Europe, is left to the final three chapters of the book, with a brief conclusion that does not offer any significant empirical and theoretical insights into China’s soft power.
The study of international relations by Chinese scholars over the past two decades has passed through several stages, but all stages share the underlying question of the nature of the Chinese state and national role conception. Sheng [End Page 6] Ding, like many other Chinese scholars, seeks to understand China’s national identity and where it now fits within the world and what role Beijing should assume as a growing economic and military power. While China’s foreign policy practice is complex, for scholars within China and China scholars that observe Beijing’s policy from abroad, the debate has been primarily framed by Western theories of international relations.2 While practical questions of China’s national interest and how China should pursue these interests are often the focus of writing by Chinese scholars, China’s national identity remains a core question for these scholars. Ding’s book is an example of this ongoing search by China scholars to understand China’s position and role in a rapidly changing world in which Beijing is playing an ever more prominent role.
Following the initiation of China’s opening and reform policy in 1978, a debate over international relations theory and China’s role in the world commenced. The first period, from roughly the late 1970s to 1990, retained the ideological paradigm of Marxism. The driving question was, does China continue to be a “revolutionary” state or has it become a “normal” state? Underlying this debate were the fundamental questions about imperialism as a continuing force in the world, the inevitability of war, or if peace is the general trend in an increasingly interdependent world. From what perspective should China determine its foreign policy? Deng Xiaoping himself entered the debate, arguing that while the danger of war persisted, the forces against war were growing, and China should seek world peace to facilitate economic development. In the mid-1990s, as China become increasingly integrated into the political economy of the world, the focus shifted to neorealist and neoliberal institutional analysis — defining China’s national interests and how these should be pursued. But the deeper question was China’s identity. Many Chinese scholars argued that China was now a “normal state” that should pursue its national interests but wondered where China fit in and what...