Monday, June 12, 2006

Beacon No. 90: The Manchurian Candidates


Over the weekend I read Joshua Kurlantzick’s short piece, China’s Charm: Implications of Chinese Soft Power. Much of it restates what’s already known about China’s soft-power drive in Asia and elsewhere: Beijing continues to pour money into trade and development deals from Sao Paulo to the Sudan. Its Confucius Institutes and increasingly sophisticated media services diffuse Chinese perspectives and the Mandarin language worldwide. Its high officials are tireless in visiting, welcoming and persuading other countries’ officials of its “win-win” approach to foreign policy, in contrast with the United States’ “disrespectful” treatment of Asia and its obsessive counterterrorism focus.

However, Kurlantzick takes the discussion down avenues I often downplay. Soft power is a second-order effect of success; a country is perceived as innovative, or wise, or transparent, or even fatherly, and people in other countries examine why through the lens of their own culture and the information they have on hand.

Just as the United States wants others to believe its success results from democratic government, religious plurality and personal freedom, Kurlantzick argues that Beijing’s recent commercial success helps propagate its questionable political model to Asian neighbors:

... China has already begun to export its own poor labor, political, and environmental policies. In northern Burma, Chinese government-linked companies contribute to widespread deforestation, and China has shown little interest in Southeast Asian nations’ concerns about the environmental impact of dams on China’s upper portion of the Mekong River. ...

Meanwhile China’s support for authoritarian regimes in Cambodia and Burma forestalls democratization or at least better governance in those nations. In Cambodia opposition politicians complain of Chinese support for the ruling party, and journalists report that when they write about subjects displeasing to China—like Taiwan—the embassy harasses them. In Burma China’s aid packages and frequent state visits have undermined U.S. and Southeast Asian efforts to push the ruling junta into a dialogue with the democratic opposition; instead, China’s actions have encouraged other powers, like India, to mover closer to Rangoon. ...

In the worst possible case, China’s success in delivering strong economic growth while retaining political control could serve as an example to some of the more authoritarian-minded leaders in the region, like Cambodia’s Hun Sen, who admires China’s economic and political system. In controlling development from the top, of course, Beijing’s model rejects the idea that ordinary citizens should control countries’ destinies.

In a region of shaky democracies, the Chinese example could bring out the worst in leaders who find answering to the people to be a distraction. Continuing along the worst-case trajectory, Vietnam, of all countries, could wind up being a major regional ally because of its historical antipathy to China, and because the memory of China’s attempted invasion in 1978—and Vietnam’s prompt expulsion of Chinese troops—is still fresh.

Kurlantzick’s policy prescriptions aren’t particularly new, but he makes a welcome call for a more thorough understanding of how China conducts its soft-power campaign, discussions of what the limits of Beijing’s regional influence, in U.S. eyes, should be, and re-engagement with Asian organizations that have been allowed to fall off Washington’s radar.

No comments:

Site Meter