Commentary Magazine

China’s Charm Offensive

In October 2003, George W. Bush arrived for his first visit to Australia, a country that for a half-century has been one of America's closest allies. Australian soldiers fought alongside Americans in the jungles of the Pacific theater in World War II and on the front lines in Korea and Vietnam. During the long decades of the cold war, Washington relied on Australia as an outpost of freedom in a region threatened by Communism. Today, in Iraq, Australian soldiers again serve at the side of the American military. To top it off, President Bush enjoys warm personal relations with Prime Minister John Howard.

But on his visit three years ago, the President was in for an unpleasant surprise. Thousands of protesters filled the streets in Sydney and Canberra, scuffling with police and staging mock trials of the American president. Inside the Australian parliament, Bush's remarks were interrupted by heckling senators, who had to be escorted from the chamber. His speech done, he was met outside by another chorus of booing critics.

The tumult surrounding Bush's visit was especially notable because, just days later, Australia would offer a vastly different welcome to another president—Hu Jintao of China. Hu toured Australia like a hero. Few protested China's human-rights record. In parliament, no one disturbed his windy paean to the future of Australia-China ties. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer spoke words of fulsome praise. Before Hu left, the two nations had signed a framework for a future free-trade deal.

Some of the anger toward Bush could be blamed on the war in Iraq, which has been unpopular in Australia. But the contrast in treatment between the American and Chinese presidents had a deeper source. For most of the postwar period, Australians had embraced the U.S. and viewed China warily. Some politicians even argued that Australia should ignore Asia altogether. Today, the situation is much altered. In a poll conducted in early 2005, barely half of Australians reported positive feelings about the United States, while some 70 percent saw China in a favorable light.

In Australia, China is winning friends, often at America's expense. The same could be said of other places in the world as well.


Beijing began to think of itself as a bigger player on the world stage a decade ago. Years of strong economic growth had fostered greater self-confidence, and a new generation of more internationalist leaders had risen within the Communist party. At the same time, the ruling elite had managed to coopt potentially disruptive forces like the Internet and satellite television—forces that foreign scholars had wrongly predicted would pry open Chinese society. The regime also set higher wages for academics, created lavish new state-supported housing for the upper-middle class, and recruited private-sector elites into the party—moves calculated to convince intellectuals that their interests lay with the government. Though Communist ideology no longer stirred much passion, the party thus succeeded in generating a strong sense of nationalism in the country's growing class of educated urbanites.

For many American observers, the most alarming aspect of these developments lay in China's newfound military assertiveness and ambition. Starting in the mid 1990's, Beijing escalated its efforts against Taiwan, launching missiles into the Taiwan Strait near the island's cities. It also occupied reefs in the South China Sea and began to develop them for military purposes, thus impinging on territory claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, and other nations in the region. In a much-discussed article in COMMENTARY, “The Struggle for Mastery in Asia” (November 2000), Aaron L. Friedberg suggested that, over the coming decades, the United States might well “find itself engaged in an open and intense geopolitical rivalry with the People's Republic of China.”

But China's military adventurism backfired. Countries across Asia united to condemn Beijing's behavior and stepped up their military links with the U.S. The Taiwanese responded by electing a more pro-independence candidate, and President Clinton sent aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Strait. Needless to say, this was not what China had wanted or expected. Younger Chinese officials began to recognize that their country could not match America's military might—a conclusion strikingly confirmed in late 2001 when American forces were quickly deployed to Afghanistan and won a lightning victory over the Taliban.

Another key event in shaping the outlook of Chinese decision-makers lay in the opposite direction: the favorable international response to Beijing's role in the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990's. China refused to devalue its own currency, at a potential cost to its own export competitiveness, on the grounds that doing so would exacerbate devaluations in Thailand and Indonesia. Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan described the decision as a “major sacrifice,” an instance of standing up for other Asian nations. Although Beijing's policy mattered less to the eventual resolution of the crisis than did the bailout ultimately organized by the U.S., Japan, and other powers, its seeming devotion to common interests won the region's gratitude. In the words of Rodolfo Severino, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China emerged from the crisis “smelling good.”

The lesson was not lost on Beijing. Though far from resigned to pacifism—as Donald Rumsfeld has emphasized, China's defense budget has grown considerably in recent years—the Communist leadership began to define an idea of longer-term “comprehensive national power,” encompassing a range of economic, cultural, and diplomatic levers of influence. This strategic shift, a more limited version of what the American political scientist Joseph S. Nye, Jr. has called “soft power,” has been neatly described by Wang Huning of the Communist party's policy-research office: “If one nation-state is able to make its power appear reasonable in the eyes of another people, then its desires will encounter less resistance.”


Among the tools available to Beijing in exercising its soft power, the most obvious are socioeconomic. Riding the wave of its astonishing growth over the past decade, China now routinely portrays itself not only as a model for the world's poorest countries but as their most vocal and sympathetic international ally. As one recent government white paper trumpeted, China “has created a miracle by feeding nearly 22 percent of the world's population on less than 10 percent of the world's arable land. . . . The Chinese government has lifted 220 million people out of poverty.”

Such claims are now central to the country's public diplomacy. Cheng Siwei, vice chairman of the National People's Congress, has declared, for example, that China and Latin America are natural partners since “both belong to the developing world and have identical or similar views on many issues.” As Barry Sautman of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has pointed out, a similar approach characterizes China's dealings with Africa, where Beijing contrasts itself to Western nations that have “ignored African aspirations for a more equitable international distribution of wealth and power.”

The socioeconomic model that China sells as an answer to these supposed historic wrongs is one of gradualism. It consists of three basic elements: a certain degree of openness to private enterprise, a large state sector, and a concerted effort to forestall democratic reform. As an alternative to the aggressive free-market program promoted by the U.S. since the 1990's—the so-called “Washington consensus”—the Chinese model has won wide support, especially from authoritarians of diverse stripes. The gradualist approach to liberalization gives such rulers the time and the maneuvering room to figure out how to coopt new business elites. Like the Communist party of China, they hope to modernize their economies while remaining in firm control of the state.

Evidence of Beijing's success can be seen in the large official delegations from Vietnam, Cambodia, Brazil, and various African nations that now regularly visit China at the government's invitation. Opinion leaders from abroad attend conferences, tour the country to view its economy at work, and build contacts with the Communist party. By wooing these elites, China is able to diminish fears not only about the effects of its own rapid growth on other economies but about its wider ambitions as a global power.

More surprising, perhaps, is the degree of popular support that the Chinese model commands around the world. As the recent success of some leftist candidates in Latin America attests, that continent still feels an attraction to statism. In one recent poll, a mere 35 percent of Latin Americans would permit the private sector to control economic activity. Comparable views can be found in Africa. As Barry Sautman reports, even the head of the African Development Bank has suggested that China's statist ideas can teach the continent how “to move from low- to middle-income status,” while a leading ‘Nigerian’ writer lauds China for “not brand[ ing] ‘subsidy’ a dirty word.”


China's economic help is hardly confined to advice and educational junkets. As a trading partner, China already rivals the U.S. in Southeast Asia and is constantly expanding its market share elsewhere, especially in the purchase of raw materials. Beijing has also developed a substantial and fast-growing foreign-aid program, in 2004 giving away over $1.5 billion in Asia and some $2.7 billion in Africa. Finally, though a relatively small player in terms of overseas investment, China is seeking opportunities in that realm as never before, and within a decade is likely to become the biggest investor in many of the developing countries on its borders.

More important than the absolute size of its holdings abroad is their clear relationship to China's national interests. Because so many of the country's large firms still maintain ties to the state, Beijing has been able to push them into overseas sectors of particular strategic value. Over the past decade, China's Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation has selected some 30 top companies to take the lead in foreign investment. A key incentive is the funding they receive from state-controlled banks. In 2004, according to the consulting firm Accenture, the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei was given a $10-billion low-cost loan to help it expand its global reach.

At the top of China's list in this regard has been energy, ever-increasing amounts of which are needed to fuel the country's booming economy. The heads of state-owned natural-resource firms speak openly of the investments that Beijing directs them to make abroad. This campaign has paid off handsomely, with Chinese companies lining up a range of eager partners in countries possessing first-tier oil and gas fields. In South America, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has established a joint venture with the state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela and, through a subsidiary, has bought a stake in Peru's Pluspetrol. Last year CNPC purchased PetroKazakhstan, one of the biggest oil companies in Central Asia, for $4.18 billion. Chinese firms have also become the biggest foreign investor in Sudan's sizable oil industry, and have concluded a deal to develop one of Iran's major oil and gas fields.


As a political and diplomatic matter, the defining feature of China's effort to cultivate new allies has been its ostensible readiness to offer friendship with no strings attached. In visits abroad, Chinese leaders enunciate a doctrine of “win-win” relations. China will be everyone's friend, listening to the needs and desires of others without asking for anything in return. By emphasizing “noninterference,” China has once again sought to create a sharp contrast between itself and the U.S.

The America painted by Chinese officials is an arrogant hegemon, slapping sanctions on other states, refusing to sign or abide by international agreements, and determined to force liberalization upon societies unready for it. Countries that ally with China, by contrast, can avoid the onerous economic and political reforms demanded by Washington.

There is no denying that, combined with socio-economic aid or investment, this diplomatic approach has paid off, in ways both small and large. Chinese-language study has skyrocketed internationally, and foreign students now clamor to attend China's elite universities. Today China enrolls twice as many Indonesian students a year as does the United States, while welcoming some 13,000 students from South Korea, America's staunch ally. Beijing has also expanded and professionalized the output of its party-controlled newswire, Xinhua. Available in many languages, it is now picked up by newspapers around the world, its dispatches often treated with the same respect accorded to those of Reuters or the AP.

When Chinese dignitaries travel, especially in the developing world, they are greeted with the sort of welcome and access once reserved for Americans, Japanese, and Europeans. In April 2006, on his first state visit to Saudi Arabia, President Hu was given a lavishly rococo reception, an honor paid in the past almost exclusively to U.S. Presidents. In 2004, President Luiz Ignacio Lula de la Silva in Brazil spoke warmly in Hu's presence of his new friend and shared wishes for “a partnership” that would serve “as a paradigm for South-South cooperation.”

Still more amazingly, China's charm offensive has made a strong impression on international public opinion. In a 2005 BBC poll of 22 nations, 48 percent rated China's role in the world as mainly positive, with only 30 percent seeing it as negative. A follow-up poll, released in February 2006, revealed a rise in positive feelings in nations ranging from Brazil to Indonesia to Nigeria, even as the public standing of the United States deteriorated.


The effects of China's diplomatic outreach can be registered perhaps most sharply in its own region, where its influence is felt in older groupings like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and in newer pan-Asian institutions, like the East Asia Summit, which it has helped to create. In the longer run, Beijing may try to convert some of these partnerships into more formal alliances. In the Philippines, Beijing is already pushing for much closer military-to-military relations, of the sort Manila now enjoys with America. It has also pressured Singapore into signaling that it would not come to the aid of Taiwan in any future conflict with China.

As President Bush's 2003 sojourn to Australia suggests, China has even succeeded in driving a wedge between the U.S. and its closest regional ally. For fifty years, these two countries have been bound together by the ANZUS treaty, which commits each to come to the assistance of the other in wartime. But Australian politicians have started to back away from ANZUS. In August 2004, Australian Foreign Minister Downer, speaking in Beijing, said that ANZUS obligations “could be invoked only in the event of a direct attack on the United States or Australia”—a comment clearly meant to suggest that Australia would not help the U.S. in a war with China over Taiwan.

Then there is Central Asia. There, China played a leading role in the founding five years ago of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a group that includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The rest of the world paid little attention, but since 2001, Central Asia has assumed new international prominence. It is both rich in oil—Kazakhstan alone produces more than a million barrels a day—and adjacent to flashpoints like Afghanistan and Iran. This is why, after 9/11, Washington hurried to secure basing rights in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

China's response to the American presence in the region has been quietly to expand its financial assistance and trade. More important, when American officials criticized the Uzbek government for its crackdown on the opposition in 2005—a move that culminated in the massacre of over 400 people in the city of Andijan—China quickly offered blanket support for the authoritarian regime. At the SCO summit in July 2005, the fruits of China's policy could be seen in a joint communiqué declaring the group's opposition to any country intent on “monopolizing or dominating international affairs” and demanding that Washington provide a timeline for withdrawing American forces from members' territory.


Some China-watchers might find a certain reassurance in Beijing's choice of the path of soft power over military confrontation. After all, no war was ever started because of competition between Chinese- and English-language schools, and the tendency of modern commerce is to discourage conflict among nations with deeply intertwined economies. More to the point, though Chinese soft power has certainly grown, it is still no match for that of the U.S., with its enormous financial resources and dynamic popular culture.

Optimists might even point to indications of a willingness on China's part to use its newfound prestige and influence in beneficial ways. Thus, Beijing has demonstrated a genuine desire to resist narcotics trafficking (especially from neighboring Burma, a supposed ally) and other nontraditional security threats, and has sent Chinese peacekeepers to hot spots like Haiti and Liberia under the UN flag. On occasion China has even shown a readiness, at least in theory, to help mediate regional conflicts like the current stand-off over North Korea's nuclear-weapons program.

But no less evident are darker implications. Among the core American interests most threatened by Beijing is access to oil. The U.S. receives a large share of its oil from Latin America and West Africa, markets where China has been busy striking preferential deals. As competition for this resource becomes ever more heated, not only will serious economic consequences ensue but the unstable and politically unsavory suppliers of the Middle East will be placed in an even stronger position to throw their weight around than they are now.

Globally, there is also the danger of imitation. To the extent that poorer nations follow China's model of development, they are likely to reproduce both its disastrous environmental record and its hostility to independent labor unions and other accoutrements of a free civic order, a combination with dire effects on long-term social health. Nor is state control in the most backward corners of the world likely to produce anything like Chinese-style growth. Though corruption is endemic in Chinese officialdom, its negative effects are offset by the developing rule of law there (especially in the eastern cities) and by the country's need to fight graft in order to attract foreign investment. In parts of the developing world, where the rule of law is at best a distant ideal, the Chinese model can only intensify corruption.

Finally, the Chinese posture of “noninterference” can be a cover for something more ominous. The fact is that, in the developing world, China has served as a positive impediment to Western efforts to bring about vital reforms. In 2005, for example, IMF officials were on the verge of concluding a deal with the Angolan government in which new loans would be tied to intensive monitoring to ensure that aid actually reached the poor. At the last minute, Angolan officials broke off the talks; China had stepped in, offering loans and credits worth as much as $5 billion—with no conditions.

China's “noninterference” has also helped to preserve some of the world's worst regimes—governments that often happen to be both alienated from Washington and flush with natural resources. Indeed, China appears deliberately to target such nations, whose ranks include not only Saudi Arabia, which has considered building a strategic oil reserve for China, but also Venezuela and Bolivia, whose anti-American leaders, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, have been aggressively courted by Beijing.

During the sham elections in Zimbabwe in 2005, no major international power would endorse the reelection of Robert Mugabe—with the exception of China. In fact, Beijing actively helped Mugabe win, providing the aging dictator with agricultural equipment, electricity transformers, and planeloads of T-shirts bearing the insignia of his party. China also reportedly supplied expert assistance to jam the radio broadcasts of the Zimbabwean opposition and monitor its Internet communications.

In the case of Iran, the Chinese have shown no interest in containing the nuclear ambitions of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While expressing concern about the program, Beijing has hindered efforts by the UN Security Council to sanction Iran. At the same time, as if to bid defiance to the U.S., it has hosted Ahmadinejad in Shanghai and expanded its energy interests in Iran, tying itself even more closely to the Islamist regime.

Worldwide, China's support for dictators hurts the populations of the affected nations while endangering regional and international security. In supporting self-aggrandizing demagogues like Robert Mugabe and Hugo Chavez, China fosters instability in the world's fragile, impoverished continents. By reducing pressure on rogue actors like Sudan and Iran, Beijing undermines any real prospect of political and social reform, all but guaranteeing that they will continue to be engines of extremism and global terror.


For now, the United States still enjoys some leverage over decision-makers in Beijing, who prize their high-level bilateral dialogue with the White House. But as China's economy develops and becomes less reliant on foreign capital, America's influence over its behavior will diminish even more steeply than it already has.

All of which is a sharp reminder that China remains not only an economic rival but a looming political danger. In many respects, indeed, China represents a more complicated potential adversary than the Soviet Union ever was. Our struggle with the hidebound USSR certainly had its “soft” side, involving the contest of ideas and of political and economic ideals. But the main struggle was in the arena of hard power, of military might and determination, and in the end this is what proved decisive. Countering the new China is a task requiring a kind of intellectual and ideological agility at which Americans are not much practiced. If democratic values are to prevail globally, we need even more rapidly to develop and to give life to some unaccustomed instruments of American influence.



1 Where Nye focuses on the persuasive force of a country's appeal and image, and excludes elements like investment, trade, and aid, Beijing defines soft power more broadly to take in every means of influence outside the military and security realms.


About the Author

Joshua Kurlantzick is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World.

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