Review: Charm Offensive–How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World

5 Star, Country/Regional, Culture, Research, Diplomacy, Strategy

charm offensiveExtremely Good Effort for One Mind–Missing Some Links, October 25, 2008

Joshua Kurlantzick

I first studied China, the “Middle Kingdom,” in 1975 when I found Mao relevant to my primary interest, understanding and addressing revolution in all its forms. The image above is the heart of my graduate-level quick look at how the PRC exercised foreign influence back then. In addition, my father was a Chinese “guest” in 1967-1968 after pirate militia sank his trimaran enroute from Saigon to Hong Kong, a story told in Yachtsman in Red China.

The author has done a superb job of observing, interpreting, and documenting. I take away one star for a certain amount of naiveté and incompleteness–the book ends somewhat weakly–but I totally disagree with those who consider this book disorganized or less than four stars in merit. I found the book absorbing, consistent with my own recent observations tracking Chinese irregular warfare including both electronic warfare and waging peace in Africa and South America, and over-all, I cannot think of a finer book for American diplomats, politicians, and students of serious mien.

The author opens with a very personal and relevant account of how he watched the fall of US influence and the rise of Chinese influence in Thailand, marking the late 1990's as the time of change. To his surprise, when he asked US diplomats about this, he found them unaware. Today, they are aware, but powerless in the face of a White House that under Dick Cheney has totally destroyed the policy process (for an account of how this was done, see The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill.

He follows the 1990's in Thailand with a very compelling comparison of how George Bush was heckled by Australian senators and booed by the Australian public in 2003, while a few days later the Chinese leader Hu Jin Tao was welcomed as a hero. He points out that Australians now see US unilateral militarism as a threat to Australian peace and prosperity fully co-equal to the threat of radical Islam. For one balanced take on foreign public perceptions on America, see The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World

He properly credits Joe Nye with the term “soft power” but I am in agreement with the anthropologists and others who now choose not to use that term because global presence has to be managed as a Whole of Government/Whole Earth enterprise, something Stewart Brand and others understood decades before the rest of us. Of all Stewart's books, my favorite remains Clock Of The Long Now: Time And Responsibility: The Ideas Behind The World's Slowest Computer, a book I fear the Chinese appreciate vastly more than the two idiot parties now looting the US commonwealth on behalf of their Wall Street masters.

The author says that the Chinese think of their primary power as everything outside the military and security realm. See my image above for a nuanced understanding that is still valid–the names have changed, but the Chinese are simply playing a modern version of Middle Kingdom ubber alles.

The author reviews the mis-steps under Mao (Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, export of revolution), and then gives proper credit to Deng Xiao Ping as the transitional and transformational leader who adopted pragmatic reforms. The deal China made, in substituting enhanced nationalism for absolute communism, was “make money, not trouble” and all would be allowed.

The new leaders are college graduates and in many cases have graduate degrees. The end of the Cold War freed China from fear of Russia, and now China is focusing on the Second World. For good reasons why, see
The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order

The new era leaders clearly understand that global problems impact on them, and they must pursue global solutions.

Here are the 20 elements of China's global strategy as I understood them from the author's excellent account.

01 Stability in the 14 countries on its borders
02 Cease military confrontation (e.g. Spratleys), use non-military assets
03 Go after resources all over the world
04 Create ring of allies as buffer against US and other interventionists
05 Non-interference in affairs of others
06 “Born-again Multinationalism” (Susan Shirk)
07 Cooperative agreements (7 with Mexico, 14 with Venezuela, etc)
08 Help those the US shirks or slights (Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia, Uzbeckistan…)
09 Offer socio-economic model in which state, not market, is steering
10 Focus on small nations ignored by US and others
11 Cultural and public diplomacy ****needs its own book****
12 Direct recruitment of overseas Chinese in 1980's, used their wealth, $30B or 7% of external investment, as seed crystal for 1990's boom
13 Aid, trade, easy loans, investment (a fraction of what US does, but they get more mileage out of theirs by how and when and why they do)
14 Easy fit with corruption and deals outside the rule of law
15 Lots of construction including free buildings for headquarters (the author does not say this, I do: “no extra charge for the electronic bugs”)
16 Junkets to China, junkets with issue training for the staffs
17 Exporting men (this could have used more attention–Argentina will be majority Chinese by 2020 or so)
18 Exporting visual media (#2 in the world right now)
19 Rolling Taiwan back, everyone withdrawing recognition
20 Direct influence both good and bad (good: anti-drugs, some effort on human trafficking, on disease; bad: illegal lumber harvests in Myanmar, Indonesia)

The last three chapters are not as arresting, but still good:
IX: America's soft power goes soft, both Clinton and Bush killed us overseas
X: Shanghai Cooperation Organization, giving US “wedgies” all over the world
XI: Rest of World waiting for two things from USA: live up to our values and stop our bad policies

The author is a big naïve (or less informed) when he lambasts the Chinese for supporting dictators and fails to realize that our two corrupt political parties love 42 of the 44 dictators as their best pals (see Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025).

Serious book by a serious person for serious people. Well done.

My last four allowed links:
Election 2008: Lipstick on the Pig (Substance of Governance; Legitimate Grievances; Candidates on the Issues; Balanced Budget 101; Call to Arms: Fund We Not Them; Annotated Bibliography)
Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It
The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism
Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace