Smart power potential under Xi Jinping

Author: Alistair D. B. Cook, NUS

While there are hard power rivalries between the United States and China in the Asia Pacific, there have been signs that China is increasingly using soft power to achieve its policy objectives. In January, Xi Jinping was quoted as saying that China will follow an ‘open, cooperative and win-win’ development model in conducting its foreign affairs.

There is nothing essentially ground breaking in this reference, but it provides some indication of the thinking behind its foreign policy in the region.

This reference signals a shift in thinking from an overly militaristic hard power approach to foreign policy to one that interweaves more soft power of trade and diplomacy. Smart power is attributed to theorists Joseph Nye and Suzanne Nossel who advocate American liberal internationalism through a strategic combination of soft and hard power. However, as we enter further into the Asian century it is time to acknowledge that Asian states also utilise both soft and hard power, albeit sometimes different and competing types to the West.

This is not to enter the fray on the Asian values  debate, but rather to use smart power as a prism through which to understand Chinese foreign policy potential under Xi Jinping. Throughout the leadership transition process, many stakeholders from outside the foreign ministry have voiced  their opinion regarding the causes and consequences of Chinese foreign policy, particularly to its smaller neighbours. Is Chinese foreign policy heading in a new direction, away from hard power and toward smart power?

In early February, the Chinese government dispatched  a monitor from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the border town of Ruili in the west of Yunnan province. Ambassador Luo Zhaohui was sent to convene peace talks between the Kachin Independence Organization and the Myanmar government as a first step to negotiations. With China and other ethnic leaders observing, both top Kachin leaders and the Myanmar president’s peace negotiating team met and agreed to de-escalate violence and open channels of communication.

It is this Chinese soft power potential that was on display at the peace talks. But the absence of the top Myanmar military leaders, alongside reports that aid supplies to the displaced were being blocked at military checkpoints, illustrate that there is obviously still some way to go to nurture Chinese soft power.

However, the development of Chinese soft power alone is neither achievable nor desirable in the eyes of the new Chinese leadership. Chinese diplomacy, while sometimes reacting to nationalism, is rooted in pragmatism. Its recent veering off course has been the natural consequence of a leadership transition. As the Xi leadership consolidates Chinese foreign policy will likely use more soft policy tools to address its strategic priorities, as was the case during the Ruili peace talks.

The catalyst for Chinese involvement in convening these peace talks was no accident. The recent upsurge in violence in Kachin state is important to China for three reasons. The major concern was the stress on Kachin state’s stability, the threat to civilians posed by the fighting and the resultant spill-over effects into China  such as the movement of Kachin refugees into China.

The second concern was the proximity of the war to the Shwe gas pipeline linking Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal. The pipeline route was chosen to avoid potential energy insecurity at sea in the Straits of Malacca. However, when the 17-year-old ceasefire broke down , the Kachin war became a threat to the economic development and security of China’s poorer south-western provinces.

The third concern arose within Yunnan province as cross-border trade began to be affected, with timber loggers and mining companies suspending their activities due to security concerns. The Chinese response illustrated the caveats of recent Chinese foreign policy choices in dealing with its smaller neighbours. What is clear is that as China becomes more interconnected, it has more foreign policy levers at its disposal. Recent anti-Chinese  feelings in the region have shown that hard power alone incites fear and loathing. Utilising its smart power, China can bolster its international image not just with foreign governments but with their citizens as well.

Alistair D. B. Cook is a Visiting Research Fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.


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  • Suzie Wong

    Although analyzing Japan’s behavior through individual and national level helps shed some light, it fails to explain Japan’s 21st century foreign policy objective in the Asia- Pacific region. Lacking the analysis at the third level – the international level – of analysis, scholars fail to connect the theoretical knowledge of Japan’s strategy to the current events in the Asia Pacific region. For example, the Rohinya ethic refugees attempt to land at naval strategic locations of mainland Southeast Asia, such as Phuket for Andaman Sea, Rayong and Songkla for the Gulf of Thailand. These refugees would not be able to pick up such precise locations unless they were guided by the GPS – the Global Positioning System. Also, as Alistair D.B. Cook’s article points out that the fighting between the Burmese military and various other ethnic groups occurred along the gas pipeline linking Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal. Failing to research that at the Correlates of War Project there are in depth studies of global ethnics and war project, scholars see the event in the Asia Pacific as accidental events.

    With the territorial of the continental size, the paradigm shift becomes the issue of national security for Australia. “How do you connect 9 dots only using 4 straight lines and not going over the same line twice?” It is impossible to find the solution unless scholars think outside the box.

  • Suzie Wong

    Why was there fighting between the Burmese military and various other ethnic groups occurred along the gas pipeline linking Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal? Why did the Rohinya attempted to land in Phuket of the Andaman Sea, and at Rayong and Songkla of the Gulf of Thailand?

    Are they accidental or intentional events?

  • david teng

    One can’t write a whole article on Chinese ” smart power potential ” based the the single rare step taken by China facilitating Kachin/Myanmar conflict (from which the author said China stands to gain ) while the extreme Chinese territorial acts in the East Sea, South China Sea… are pushing toward eminent large scale danger. So, beside this very minute intervention, what else has Xi Jinping done to “become more interconnected ” with small neighbours? Are we at the point where our hope for a thoughtful leadership should be raised at a small Chinese move?

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for your comment. The purpose of my article was to highlight Chinese soft power. The sentence referring to China being ‘more interconnected’ was to illustrate that there are multiple foreign policy levers being used, and so while it is small it is a caveat nonetheless, and one that has significant implications for human security in Myanmar. For the people in Myanmar, it matters.

  • Suzie Wong

    There is a growing disconnect between the way people experience militarized conflicts across the Asia Pacific region and the way the policy establishment talks about it. For example, the crises happened along the coastal areas of the Pacific: the current deadly shootouts between the Filipino Muslim and the Malaysian forces in Borneo state which potentially expanding to Sabah state, the Thai Muslim daily car bombs in Southern Thailand, the Rohingya Muslim refugees landed in all the Thai naval strategic locations. Lacking the understanding of Japan’s naval strategy in its hegemonic challenge objective for hegemony in the 21st century, the policy establishment continues to focus on individual level of analysis when Japan’s maneuvering for naval advantage position has already occurred at the international level of analysis across the Asia Pacific region.

    In order to create a militarized conflict with numbers of deaths, the planning requires area studies about geography, history, domestic politics, international politics, military strategy, as well as operational and logistic support for those Muslims. The planners do so because the conflicting events serve its strategic objective, and the operating costs are much lower than the gains.

    Then what are Japan’s objectives in creating conflicts along the coastal region of the Asia Pacific now? There are two reasons to this conduct. First, Japan wants to challenge now before China becomes fully industrialized, and while the U.S. is now relatively weak. This is the reason why Japan chooses confrontational stance instead of diplomacy. Second, Japan adopts Alfred Thayer Mahan’s concept of “The Influence of Sea Power” over land power by intercepting communications and “Blitzkrieg” operations over Southeast Asia – the reasons for current militarized conflicts across Southeast Asia.

  • Suzie Wong

    Here is another example regarding the necessity of a paradigm shift regarding to the analysis of the Asia Pacific Region.

    Despite the warnings from China and the United States, North Korea has neither feared nor hesitated to pursue its goal as a nuclear capable country as soon as possible. How could we explain this behaviour in the context of global recession and North Korea’s dire poverty? Thus far the policy establishment has been coming up with a simple explanation that North Korea has an authoritarian regime with an immature and irrational leader. But for years, North Korea has already embraced Japan’s stratagems to dominate North East Asia through the nuclear capability. North Korea has long been in communication with Japan on this matter e.g. Koizumi’s visit and its following up through routine communication via the Japanese Mitsui Life Insurance company.

    Conventional premise and reasoning among the policy establishment is rapidly becoming obsolete. A political analysis based on the Cold War attitude and assumption simply does not work in the post-Cold War hegemonic challenge era. Today we need to go further, and establish new paradigms to explain North Korea’s confidence in its pursuance of deadly nuclear capability. Because North Korea’s behavior goes beyond the simple violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the policy establishment needs to adjust to new realities and show a willingness to change – paradigm shift – so as to formulate a realistic policy option.