The concept of “soft power”, popularized by Harvard’s Joseph Nye, has always seemed artificial. Power as wielded by nations is not neatly divisible into “hard” and “soft” categories. The great realist philosopher of power Hans Morgenthau identified the elements of national power as geography, natural resources, industrial capacity, population, military preparedness, national morale, the quality of government, and the quality of diplomacy. A nation’s foreign policy, he wrote,
combines those factors into an integrated whole, gives them direction and weight, and awakens their slumbering potentialities by giving them the breadth of actual power.
The articles in China’s Footprints in Southeast Asia discuss China’s efforts to expand its influence in the region by using “soft power”. Those efforts, as the editors and contributors show, have had mixed results because China’s “soft power”—development assistance, investment and trade, and cultural outreach—is not separable from China’s “hard power”. Chinese leaders make no such distinction. Instead, as Morgenthau understood, they combine the elements of national power to advance their interests in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
Most of the book’s chapters analyze China’s use of “soft power” in specific countries in the region—Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Singapore. The editors and contributors are all academics—from Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan, and Malaya—who specialize in the countries they write about. There are some academic-sounding sub-headings such as “Footprints as Spaces of Contestation” and “The Chinese Dream and its Discourse Power.” The contributors use figures, tables and charts to summarize their data about Chinese economic and cultural ties to countries in Southeast Asia. Most of the data utilized is three-years-old or more.
The opening chapter by the editors and Teng-Chi Chang’s article (Chapter 2) provide historical background, evolution, and context to China’s policies in Southeast Asia. China’s growing economic power—begun by Deng Xiaoping—provides the means for the current Chinese leadership to pursue the Belt and Road Initiative, which includes both “soft” and “hard” power, to use the terminology of the book’s contributors.
In each of the Southeast Asian nations discussed by the contributors, China has established Confucius Institutes, invested in national projects, expanded trade, and utilized overseas Chinese to form and grow guanxi or networks with each nation’s political elite. Those tools of “soft power”, the contributors believe, are designed in part to allay concerns created by China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the region; to persuade the region’s nations that China will be a benevolent hegemon.
As the editors and some of the contributors note, China suffers from a “trust deficit” in the region, and China’s use of soft power has not erased that deficit. What none of the contributors fully assess, however, is the likely impact of China’s military and naval build-up and its more assertive foreign policy on the political behavior of the nations in the region. Perhaps that was beyond the scope of the book. As China’s power grows and is repeatedly demonstrated in the region, the smaller states of Southeast Asia will either look to the United States to counter China’s growing power or make whatever regional accommodations with China are necessary to preserve their respective regimes. Superior power (both soft and hard) has a way of concentrating the minds of leaders of smaller nations.
The editors of China’s Footprints in Southeast Asia are surely correct when they write that “China’s self-interest is the main driver” of its so-called “soft power” offensive in the region. This is where geo-economics and culture meet geopolitics; where soft power and hard power become one. The countries of Southeast Asia presumably realize that benevolent hegemons are rare in history.