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Does China have the soft power necessary to become the global hegemon?

Published 07 Oct 2017
Karen Du

“The people of all countries expect nothing less from us, and this is our unshirkable responsibility as leaders of our times” announced President Xi Jinping at the 2017 Davos World Economic Forum. His keynote speech outlined the root causes for the widening gaps in the global economy and suggested four solutions to this problem. It implied China’s willingness to step into the leadership position to expand global trade that the United States had vacated. The changing world order demands cooperation, and China’s willingness to partake in these discussions proves that they are ready to take on the leadership role that the US is leaving behind. But does China have enough soft power to become the global hegemon?

Joseph S. Nye once claimed that China was far from America’s equal in soft power as it does not have the cultural industries or NGOs that the US has. Nye believes that soft power is just as important as hard power: if a state can make its power seem legitimate, if its culture and ideology are attractive, and if it can establish international norms consistent with its society, other states are more willing to follow its lead. In short, it is the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion. The times have changed – China is spending billions to promote its culture, products, and values in the contemporary era. This is one of the most extravagant programs of state-sponsored image building, with the Chinese government spending approximately $10 billion a year on soft power to complement its rapidly growing economic and military strength. President Xi Jinping’s calls for expanding globalisation and unity in the fight against climate change at the Davos World Economic Forum is the culmination of 10 years of China’s effort to build its public diplomacy.

China’s soft-power strategy focuses on promoting its culture to give the impression that its foreign policy is unusually benign. This has predominantly been done by selling Confucius as a symbol of harmony and by establishing 500 government-funding Confucius Institutes in 140 countries. Furthermore, China has sponsored 2,000 Chinese New Year celebrations in 140 countries in hopes that foreigners will become accustomed to some of its traditional customs. There has also been a massive investment into China’s foreign-language media: Xinhua, the government’s main news agency has over 150 foreign bureaus and Sixth Tone, a government-affiliated media sponsored website sells China’s message by being more sassy and critical (in comparison to other state media). Careful manipulation of China’s image, especially through media will enhance Chinese power.

In more recent times, China has been attempting to export its approach to development through the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative which encourages regional connectivity. This initiative is clearly a vehicle for soft power as it will promote economic integration between Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. The OBOR initiative is not the only evidence of China’s willingness to cooperate. It has also been pursuing its own trade agenda through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an agreement that encourages cooperation between 16 signatory nations. This agreement will account for almost 50% of the world’s population, and over 30% of the global GDP. This is demonstrative of China taking over the role of defending the global trading system, in the face of the US’ protectionist tendencies, as well as its latest effort to expand its international soft power.

In a world fearful of China’s rise, Chinese diplomats have been busy proving that it can co-exist with America without the kind of rivalry that caused the two world wars. Whilst China asserts that it will never seek hegemony or engage in military expansion, it is inadvertently echoing the sentiments of the 19th and 20th Century American isolationists. As China pursues initiatives that encourage cooperation, with it at the helm, its soft power will only increase. Even if China does not become the global hegemon in the near future, it will take its place alongside the US at the head of a multilateralised system of global governance. In the long term, China’s growing wealth and power, and its relatively stable and predictable leadership, coupled with the US devaluation of its own political and economic prestige may eventually cause China to surpass US power, leading it to become the global hegemon.

Karen Du is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW. She is a final year Arts student at the University of Sydney, double majoring in American Studies, and Government and International Relations. She intends to write her Honours thesis next year on how the United States should adjust to a changing world order. Karen currently volunteers for St John Ambulance and UN Youth Australia, organising their inaugural American Political Tour to be run in 2018.