Monday, October 11, 2004

Beacon No. 3: Just Like a Good Neighbor, China Is There


China is hungry.

The People's Republic needs ever-greater infusions of raw materials that it can turn into televisions, CDs, automobiles and more for export and domestic use. While it could just quietly import oil, natural gas, iron, alumina and the other commodities it needs, China recently began a "charm offensive" that highlights the positive role it's playing regionally and globally—and helps cement its access to "hard" goods.

Since Hu Jintao's ascendance to the presidency in March 2003, China has begun what may be a years-long drive to promote its diplomatic, peacekeeping, entertainment and technological prowess. Both Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have worked to improve relations with the U.S. and nearly every East Asian state, including close U.S. allies Thailand and Australia (a major PRC supplier of liquid natural gas, iron and alumina ).

The PRC's vigorous new leader, who turns 62 in December, has engaged in a worldwide round of handshaking, tea-drinking and ribbon-cutting that puts frequent-flier-mile gods Kofi Annan and Pope John Paul II to shame. As the Asia Times put it in December 2003:

"Since President Hu Jintao and company took the reins of Chinese Communist Party leadership, the Middle Kingdom has put on its most engaging face. From the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Bali and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum in Bangkok to Hu's triumphant visit to Australia, China's new leadership has forged the image of a responsible regional partner."

Premier Wen stayed busy signing agreements at that October 2003 ASEAN meeting, committing the PRC to several regional business deals and cultural exchanges. It should be noted that the U.S., although it isn't an ASEAN member, didn't even send a diplomat to ASEAN as an observer.

In contrast, Wen visited the U.S. in 2003 with trade delegations in tow, hoping to smooth any feathers ruffled by the PRC's astounding $120 billion annual trade surplus with the U.S. Essentially, as the middleman between U.S. buyers and Asian raw-materials suppliers, China gets the credit among its neighbors for providing cash and jobs that in reality are paid for by U.S. consumers.

Soft power works best when states' interests converge, and right now China is building a world in which its trading partners have every interest in seeing the PRC succeed.

Also, the friendliness and relative humility that China's leaders display plays in the region as a refreshing change from Japan's 1980s arrogance. While Tokyo's decade-long economic woes have severely damaged its soft and hard power, Beijing has handily picked up the slack as regional leader—particularly since it has no imperial past to live down (besides the low-intensity occupation of Tibet).

China has even turned its long support for North Korea into a plus, positioning itself as the indispensable player in the six-party talks to help disarm North Korea without destabilizing the Korean Peninsula.


Unable to project power over water, this nation of 1.3 billion could still be East Asia's next military bully—a position it hasn't sought for roughly a thousand years. But around the region, Beijing has toned down any military threats except about Taiwan, where it sticks to its position that the island nation is merely a renegade province destined to rejoin the fold.

Otherwise China has avoided interfering in other countries' affairs as long as their governments support the PRC's ever-increasing appetite for raw materials. It has finally agreed to a cooperative settlement regarding disputes over the strategically located, mineral-rich Spratly Islands, and it even steers clear of situations where Chinese-descended citizens are threatened, as they frequently are in Indonesia. (Many Indonesian Chinese are well-to-do merchants and subject to envy, not to say riots, by other ethnic groups.)

However, the PRC is sending a 125-man riot-control and police contingent to hurricane-stricken Haiti , marking the first time a fully integrated Chinese unit will participate in a U.N. peacekeeping mission.

This deployment wins it goodwill among U.N. members, which have long sought a bigger Chinese peacekeeping role. Some observers also note that this move helps the PRC compete with Taiwan for Haitian public opinion. This seemingly odd concern springs from Haiti's diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and not the PRC. If even tiny Haiti switches recognitions, the PRC reaps both immediate and long-term prestige benefits—all for 125 peacekeepers and some kind words.

After a low point surrounding the spring 2001 downing of a U.S. spy plane on Hainan Island, the PRC has shunned conflict with the U.S., the only power that could check it militarily. For instance, the PRC seems content to let the U.S. play sheriff in the Persian Gulf, seeing that America's need for stability there serves its own growing interest in cheap, plentiful oil.


China's soft-power offensive isn't just about feeding raw goods to its manufacturers; the country's other soft-power assets are also cranking up.

Witness Hero, a recent East-meets-Western flick about assassins who oppose ancient China's unification under a single emperor. Through balletic swordplay, buckets of blood and much horseback riding through gorgeous deserts, viewers get a parable of the Qin dynasty's need to subdue and unite the country, despite the many lives that will cost.

Hero apparently didn't pack 'em in at home, given how its ends-justify-the-means philosophy could be seen as trivializing civil rights. But it marks the export of a Chinese national creation myth that could be every bit as potent in East Asia as Paul Revere's ride and the Boston Tea Party are in the U.S. It is believable, beautifully shot, wonderfully acted and professionally choreographed. Its production values are extremely high, thanks to both native talent and post-production work in Sydney and Hong Kong.

On the whole, Hero is as good as anything Hollywood is now making, and along with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon it sets a new standard for movies worldwide—not just semi-historical epics or Chinese action films. Significantly, Hero debuted as the most popular movie in the United States.

In addition, top video-game maker Electronic Arts announced on October 5 that it would open a studio in China to tap into the growing Asian market for online games; it may employ up to 500 people by the end of the decade. China's soft power will be further enhanced when it is the producer of Asian-customized versions of popular massively multiplayer online games like Medal of Honor and Ultima Online.

China is also promoting its prowess in more old-fashioned technologies—like space travel. It entered an era of manned spaceflight when Yang Liwei rode his Shanzhou 5 space capsule into orbit in October 2003. He then immediately went on a morale-building tour to places like Hong Kong, where a newly minted hero might help shore up the mainland government's sagging popularity.


China is moving to increase its soft power in a comprehensive fashion that's hard to ignore, but the U.S. government hasn't done much to signal it understands what's happening. Today the U.S. film industry has real competition from the PRC's for worldwide hearts and minds. The American manned space program is on life support despite the Bush administration's clear, aggressive goals of returning to the Moon and continuing to Mars. The U.S. doesn't show up at important regional conferences in countries where its diplomats are already drawing paychecks.

Some might question whether the U.S. even needs to involve itself in an East Asian "charms race," but the PRC is clearly moving onto soft-power turf that the U.S. has long taken for granted: technological prowess, a unique and well-packaged national creation myth, friendly diplomacy and free trade. If the U.S. doesn't make efforts to show up on East Asia's soft-power radar it could one day find itself boxed out of the region by a friendly—but firm—economic Monroe Doctrine.

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