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Theoretical Contexts and Concepts That Guide Interpretations of Chinese Power

Does this then mean that China has become a hegemonic power that sells its image, interpretations, and values, and therefore needs a similar kind of soft power to that of the United States?

How People Think. . .

In other words, does China need hegemonic soft power? I argue that it does not, as the morality China emphasises above interests is not a morality that China would seek to impose on or sell to others. The concept of the Chinese Dream, launched by President Xi Jinping, has also occasionally been interpreted as a hegemonic project that is designed to export a Chinese Dream, just as the United States has exported the American Dream.

All countries must take a cooperative approach with an innovative spirit and responsible attitude, stand together, and seek win—win cooperation to resolve various problems and challenges, and foster a harmonious and stable international and regional security environment. Thus, the Chinese Dream is not to be imposed on other countries. Chinese soft power should hence not be measured according to the attractiveness of Chinese values, dreams, and culture, as opinion polls have done when assessing the degree to which people from other countries like the Chinese culture, music, political system, etc.

Other citizens neither need to have similar values nor need to want Chinese values for themselves. They just need to appreciate that the Chinese Dream and Chinese values are acceptable for China. However, the concept of the Chinese Dream is not the only one to have been interpreted as signifying hegemonism in Chinese foreign policy doctrine.


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China also launches or promotes concepts such as the Chinese Model and the Beijing Consensus that seem to be designed specifically to attract developing countries to certain economic ideas that China has developed for itself. If one looks at how these concepts are used, the first thing one realises is that they have been introduced by an American scholar associated with the consulting firm of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

When the Beijing Consensus is analysed by an academic with a Chinese name, however, the concept is used as an explanatory, rather than as a normative concept. Alternatively it is simply used as a name for the Chinese economic approach. The concept is hence simply used as a normatively neutral name rather than something that needs to be made attractive through using soft power. Unlike the United States, which used soft power and aid, and sometimes even military might to promote liberal economic principles in other countries, there are no political declarations promoting the Beijing Consensus as a Chinese model that other countries should adopt.

The Washington Consensus was a set of agreements that consolidated the power of the United States in international economic and financial institutions. These agreements were founded on the attractiveness of the economic model preferred by the United States. Hence although the attractiveness of the Washington economic model needed to be boosted for American interests, the Beijing Model does not relate to Chinese interests, and Chinese soft power, therefore, does not need to promote the attractiveness of the Chinese economic model.

On the contrary, the domestic economic policies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa are vastly different. The Beijing Consensus, therefore, does not challenge the idea that China subscribes consistently to an anti-hegemonic set of foreign policy objectives. Confucian culture is China-specific, and would not be the first thing China would try to impose on foreign cultures if it had hegemonic objectives.

Thinking about Global Governance

To say that Confucius Institutes seek to convert Europeans and Americans to Confucianism would not be convincing. The greater likelihood is that Confucius Institutes are in the business of promoting understanding, rather than selling the Chinese language or culture to others. This being the case, Chinese soft power does not need to focus on the attractiveness of Chinese culture, but on expanding the understanding of it among other countries.

This is clearly different from Cold War policies, whereby both the Soviet Union, and especially the United States, were eagerly selling their own mores, values, language, etc. Neither does China aim at hegemonic Confucian alliances against other powers. Whether or not China needs alliances at all is disputed, and probably depends on what we mean by alliances.

As a result, China does not need to attract other powers to its political or economic system. Countries are not going to yield to Chinese demands, even if they were attracted to the Chinese political system. Similarly, countries are not destined to oppose China if they subscribe to a different formula of domestic governance.

Instead, countries do what China wants them to do in terms of trade, that is, sell their oil and gas to China—but only if they want to, or are persuaded to do so.

What is the Future of Global Governance?

Chinese soft power aims at affecting their preferences with regards to, for example, selling oil to China, rather than with regards to Confucian values. Political systems or cultures are not relevant to global coalitions either, as coalitions are not likely to form around certain positions taken on questions about the types of political systems as was the case during the Cold War.

China does not need or want to sell its form of government, its economic wisdom, or its way of life. President George W. A form of soft power that could cater to this need for growth would shape the preferences of oil producers so that trade and favourable prices might be possible. In fact, such soft power can be measured by opinion polls, if one reinterprets them and makes one adjustment to the data.

Table 1 shows the average percentages of respondents that have a favourable attitude towards China and America. It is evident from Table 1 that China is seen favourably by roughly two-thirds of the population in oil-exporting countries, while less than half perceive the United States positively.

It aims at promoting the perception that there are benefits and opportunities to be had from collaborating with China, and so targets countries with which China actually collaborates. Furthermore, Chinese business practices are in general liked, particularly in places where China has expanding business interests, such as Africa.

If we add yet another variable to the PEW data, namely, the recent expansion of Chinese investments, we also find a strong correlation between expanding economic ties and favourable opinions of China. However, China has not managed to compete with the United States in the West, despite its crucial economic interests there. Yet in areas such as Southern Europe, where Chinese investments have dramatically increased, perceptions of China have become very positive.

If we look at the profile of favourable attitudes in the PEW data, it is also possible to see that China is weak in the variables measuring the expansiveness of Chinese political, 52 cultural, 53 and economic values, 54 but strong in the variables that demonstrate how countries feel about trading with China or about having diplomatic relations with China. When China does business, and even when China offers help in the resolution of conflicts inside another country, 58 China emphasises its own interests and relies on the idea that where cooperation takes place among equals, each of the negotiating partners can take care of their own interests.

Limiting hard and soft power to areas where it can respect the principle of non-interference has been a winning strategy. China, due to its anti-hegemonism, has no drones operating over foreign territories. Restraint in hard-power politics thus yields soft power. In some cases hard power weakens soft power, as countries and citizens perceive powerful countries with suspicion. Yet the countries where China is portrayed as powerful also see China as threatening, which means that relations with China are seen unfavourably.

This seems to support the new Chinese approach wherein China needs to negotiate and integrate its economic growth with the development goals of its neighbours in order to avoid a situation where Chinese economic growth becomes a liability to Chinese soft power. Whatever China does will affect the domestic situation in neighbouring countries, which will result in China making new enemies as well as friends, of course.

The fact that China tends to deal with ruling elites is a safe choice for its soft power, as they, self-evidently, are the ones that rule. However, if ruling elites in autocratic countries change, it might be the case that the new rulers are those that the previous ruling elite—which China might have helped—had harshly repressed. Kurlantzick sees this as a major challenge for Chinese soft power, particularly in Myanmar, where huge energy infrastructure investments have been made in cooperation with the autocratic military regime.

In two of its neighbouring countries, Japan and the Philippines, people favourable towards China are in the minority, 65 despite the fact that China has focused its soft power specifically on creating goodwill among neighbouring countries. This unpopularity affects the way these countries conduct their political and economic relations with China. China cannot avoid a hegemonic image in areas of the East China Sea and the South China Sea where there are disputes over the ownership of maritime territories.

Although China tries to build acceptance towards its globalising role by showing that it is not a hegemon like the United States, it cannot be seen as a legitimate anti-hegemonic power, as from the Japanese perspective it does not respect the sovereignty of Japan over the islands that Japan calls Senkaku Diaoyu.

Account Options

Perhaps, where anti-hegemonism fails, China could demonstrate in practice what the primacy of peaceful morality over self-interest means, and show how shelving disputes, so avoiding both the exercise and threat of violence, could win China some goodwill. But the roots of the confusion lie deeper. They are to be found in the American neo-liberal institutionalist way of perceiving global governance and its problems. Examples of this have been discussed in the debate on burden-sharing in global governance and policing.


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If the United States and other responsible powers simply insisted on reciprocity, others would have an incentive to cooperate. The idea of offsetting the temptation to free ride in global governance by means of a super-strategy of reciprocity has been explicitly used in US policies towards China. Nye, as one of the main theorists of neo-liberal institutionalism is even clearer about his use of the free rider metaphor.


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  • If every power did this, and so opted to avoid responsibility, the world would be left without governance and policing, and would lapse into the anarchy that is its natural state. In Iran, the issue of whether or not the country is developing nuclear weapons is also under question. Reciprocating uncooperative strategies with uncooperative responses will not work if the United States and the coalitions of the willing are also uncooperative at the outset. This protocol is voluntary, one that only about two thirds of the signatories of the NPT have actually ratified, and is in force in about half of the NPT signatory countries.

    At the time, the United States had ratified the protocol, but it took a decade before it changed its legislation to comply with the stipulations of the protocol. In this sense, the United States was in violation of its own voluntary commitments, while Iran simply failed to make that commitment in the first place. Later, on the question of the enrichment of uranium, the problem was similar: There were no legal or other obligations that bound Iran not to enrich uranium, and the United States, of course, enriched its own uranium. A response in the form of military action would, in the logic of neo-liberal institutionalism, only be required as a reciprocal reaction to a military act.

    The problems related to indivisible collective goods such as non-proliferation is that reciprocity would be difficult to implement. Thus, the whole idea of talking about reciprocity in relation to norms that are indivisible is inherently problematic. This limitation also applies to the claim that China is failing to contribute to the resolution of global problems on the basis of reciprocity. It is consequently not possible to imagine alternative terms of cooperation with different ways of distributing the benefits of such cooperation outcomes.

    This could be a serious problem for the analysis of cooperation and global governance—a problem that has analytical and also political consequences. What if Iran wanted to cooperate, but not on the basis of terms unilaterally defined by the United States? What if China, instead of free riding in the United States-led system of global governance, were to promote its own path to global governance?

    What if global governance was not about intrusion into everything one cannot accept, but instead about silently working for a greater respect for equal sovereignty among nations, international legality, the centrality of the UN, and international democracy? Such an interpretation of global governance gives all the power to the one that sets the agenda, and defines what is cooperative and what constitutes a failure to cooperate in world politics. One way of assessing the successfulness of global governance from the point of view of security is to see how many people have died in conflicts and wars.

    I will use a battle deaths dataset produced at Uppsala University, Sweden, 78 which is based on a meta-analysis of media reporting in conflicts. However, in this argument I am only interested in the relative share, which is unaffected by systematic underreporting of fatalities in conflicts that are motivated by global policing. We can see that conflicts that are initiated by a US intervention with various coalitions of the willing, or interventions using drones that constitute part of the global war on terror by the same coalitions now constitute up to seventy percent of all the fatalities of wars and conflicts in the world.

    Instead, China wants to focus on the discussion about what would constitute fair terms for any resolution. By using this approach, China could be on the right side of history. Although not willing to lead anti-American coalitions or punish the United States for its aggressions, China still raises the question about the rules of global democracy and the equal right of every country to its sovereignty. This assessment has become rather dominant in the international academia and sometimes even in the media. However, this article has revealed fundamental problems in the dominant view.

    However, China is not an incomplete power; it is an anti-hegemonic power. Its soft power needs are consequently different from those of a hegemonic power. Furthermore, the world is not the same as it was during the Cold War. States no longer need to form alliances on the basis of cultural and political similarity. Instead, big powers of the present seek complementation and mutual gains. If soft power is like a beauty contest, and if global governance can be nothing other than what the United States has practiced, China has indeed failed miserably in both soft power and global governance; and if hegemonic cycles recur in the same form, nor is China heading for world leadership.

    However, just as American leadership has allowed more independent nation-building in the developing world than did European colonialism, China, too, can aim at a set of norms and objectives different from those set down by American leadership. Political systems no longer compete with each other, and China does not need to demonstrate the superiority of its specific political ideas.

    Nor is the American concept of global governance the only way of showing responsibility on global issues. Instead, as shown above, it might very well be the irresponsible line that causes the majority of global suffering. Thus, China should not be assessed according to the American yardstick, but allowed to forge its own way of peaceful development.

    It does not render Chinese power incomplete. The author is grateful to the University of Helsinki for its financial facilitation of this study, and to Godfrey Weldhen for his language editing of the article. Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Sign In or Create an Account. Thinking about Global Governance should be read by all graduate students in these areas and is an excellent resource for faculty and researchers.

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    Thomas G. Weiss - Ethics & International Affairs : Ethics & International Affairs

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