U.S. and China: Soft Power Competition or Coexistence? by Bill Wanlund

In an article in Foreign Affairs last summer, Maria Repnikova, Associate Professor of Global Communication at Georgia State University, compares the two nations’ approaches to using soft power.

As a point of reference, Repnikova uses Harvard professor Joseph Nye’s 1990 observation that “soft power” involves “intangible resources: culture, ideology, [and] the ability to use international institutions to determine the framework of debate.” Repnikova says that interpretation gave the U.S. “a massive advantage over any potential rivals.”

That notion quickly gathered international attention, especially in China, she says. While PD as a U.S. foreign policy implement rose or fell in favor, depending on the presidential administration, China jumped in with both feet. “Beginning around 2007,” she writes, “top-level Chinese officials started incorporating soft power into their speeches and publications. That year, President Hu Jintao “urged the party’s cadres ‘to stimulate the cultural creativity of the whole nation and enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country.’”  

Now, Repnikova says, “Chinese experts and officials now embrace soft power with more urgency than do their American counterparts.”  Understanding that “to truly rival the United States, China needs more recognition from and more influence over global public opinion,” China “has made massive investments in public diplomacy, including the global expansion of state-owned media outlets and the cultural and language centers known as Confucius Institutes and Classrooms,” now in 162 countries. In addition, it “has sought to internationalize the Chinese higher education system by recruiting foreign students and scholars.”

She points out that China and the U.S. use PD differently, according to their own strengths. “The American conception of soft power has always had a distinctly ideological bent, as the United States presents itself as the chief defender of the liberal democratic order,” writes Repnikova. “On social media, American embassies celebrate gender, racial, and cultural diversity... American soft power is also largely shaped by private-sector cultural exports, such as Hollywood films, hip-hop music and style, and such globally recognizable brands as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.”

 On the other hand, “In China, the understanding and practice of soft power focus more on pragmatism… (Its) soft-power strategy involves promoting Chinese culture and values but also touts China’s model of economic development, its governing competence, its technological advances, its growing military capabilities, and its ability to carry out political mobilization…Anything that might improve China’s image is considered an element of soft power—even Chinese hard power. Whereas Washington sometimes relies on soft power to distract from its hard power, Beijing sometimes draws attention to its hard power to buttress its soft power.” (Emphases added.)

Results? Repnikova says, “In the United States and other Western industrialized democracies, Chinese soft power has had little impact, as evidenced by China’s declining favorability in such places in recent years…in part a byproduct of preexisting negative associations of China with communism and authoritarianism,” Repnikova writes, while “in Africa and in Latin America, China’s more pragmatic approach to soft power, layered on top of its expansive economic engagement, has had more success.” 

However, it isn’t a zero-sum game, she concludes. “Despite the belief in Washington and Beijing that the two countries are engaged in a soft-power competition, the reality looks more like soft-power coexistence. Their success in making themselves more attractive depends not so much on outmaneuvering each other as on overcoming their own internal frictions. As each country tries to refine its appeal and reduce the other’s, much of the world is becoming less interested in the question of whether the American model or the Chinese one is the most attractive overall and more interested in what each one has to offer.”

Read Maria Repnikova’s “The Balance of Soft Power: The American and Chinese Quests to Win Hearts and Minds” here. (Free with subscription to Foreign Affairs)

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Bill Wanlund is a PDCA Board Member, retired Foreign Service Officer, and freelance writer in the Washington, DC area. His column, Worth Noting, appears biweekly and addresses topics hopefully of interest to PDCA members.