China’s Global Ambitions Can’t Escape Soft Power Competition

Denny Ryanto/Haikou, China - Guanlan Lake Huayi Feng Xiaogang Film Commune

A bare few weeks before the Fire Dragon made way for the Fire Snake in the Middle Kingdom, during the brief and disreputable reign of Liu Xin as the Emperor Ai of Han, and while Augustus entered the middle of his reign far to the west, a child was born in a remote province in the southern Levant. His birthplace was unobtrusively situated just north and just south of the meeting place of the two greatest social, cultural, and economic entities of the day.

The Empire of Rome was in its infancy and the Empire of Han its troubled middle-age, but it can be rightly said that, as the Roman Martyrology has it, the “whole earth was at peace.” The child, who was to be the center of a religious movement which has since reached nearly every foot-trodden place on the earth, was uniquely positioned. Rarely has the world been so closely connected as it was then. Between Rome and Chang’an ran an expansive web of desert highways, provincial footpaths, and habitual caravan routes carrying silk, spices, and gods from the mists of eastern Asia to a wondering Mediterranean.

Rome already considered itself the center of the world. Its elite classes arrogated to themselves the luxury of indulgence in—and critique of—eastern imports, most especially the silk that had only recently begun killing off its native Aegean competitor. So prevalent was the stuff that Horace refers to it as the mark of a trustworthy prostitute (one who had nothing to hide); Seneca, more the pedant, declared silken clothes could not rightly be called clothes, and damned the adulteresses who dressed “so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife’s body.” Men, too, wore it so readily that the Emperor Tiberius saw that it was banned as a male garment, though Suetonius would note in disgust that Caligula adorned himself with it, and through Pliny we know it was still a problem at the time of Titus.

The Romans were addicts, and well into the Byzantine era they would remain utterly in the thrall of the land that produced their silk, and utterly mystified by the process whereby it was produced. The Parthians and their Sassanian successors, no wiser than the Romans in that art, were savvy enough to exploit the Roman addiction to maintain peace with their occidental rivals. When the Byzantines finally acquired the secret of silk manufacture in the 6th century, the Persians lost their bargaining chip. Before long, the two powers exhausted themselves in a conflict which ended with the Islamic caliphate in control of Persia and the Byzantine Levant. China itself was immersed in chaos. By the time it returned to the glory it had known under the Han, it was too late to restore the geopolitical power it had once enjoyed.

China, though, was always aware of the power and influence of their goods and the roads that carried them. They knew how to create an economic or cultural addiction and then exploit it. Silk, like so many elements of Chinese statecraft, was mysterious to foreigners and kept that way. This was practical, no doubt, but also a testament to the mystery that captured and held the imagination of Europe, especially after Marco Polo. The Muslims, too, knew enough about China to be suspicious—their inroads were limited prior to the Mongols—but not enough to be familiar.

Whenever a Chinese state consolidated enough power to formulate a coherent foreign policy—be it under the Han, the Tang, the Mongol Yuan, or the Ming—the rest of the world was all too willing to engage in trade according to its rules. China exploited this draw, from the secret of silk to the elaborate subjugation ritual of kowtow (required of all who sought to trade with China), even up to the closure of the country—a policy which, admittedly, backfired in the end. The Chinese state (or often, states) have a long history of cultivating geopolitical admirers through cultural influence and political distance, and thus acquiring a degree of control over global affairs in a decidedly less globally aware world.

Since the fall of the Qing—and especially since Deng Xiaoping—things have changed. China is now mysterious only to the West, which fumbles about trying to grasp at how China is either a poor mimic or an utter alien to the Western world order. Indeed, China seems to only be interested in cultivating distance and a sense of unfamiliarity among the very cultural and economic power it is trying to supplant. In the rest of the world, it has courted interest and promoted public and practically unavoidable awareness of its economic power and growing geopolitical clout.  

Initiatives like the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), Belt and Road, and the like initially appeared to fit relatively well into the Western paradigm, at least insofar as that paradigm has focused on global development via trade and investment deals, as well as creating regional markets. By focusing on integrating into these economic aspects, China’s projects have avoided a more blatant challenge to Western social and political foundations, even if observers become geopolitically nervous about the Chinese role. As a result, the liberal cultural values of the Atlantic power bloc—democracy, equality, national identity, the robust welfare state—continue to possess totemic power in much of the world.

China has not stridently promoted an alternative to this Western cultural and ideological frame—kowtowing to liberalism as a set of global norms, though not domestic ones. This is not out of step with the Chinese Communist Party’s historic strategy for dominance. From domestic opponents, to rival political parties, to enemy factions within the party itself, modern Chinese statecraft is deeply informed by “united front” strategies. This approach allows the party, and China by extension, to work cooperatively with players which it does not have the strength to enter into conflict with. The catch: when that strength is ultimately achieved, struggle commences until the relationship is one of dominance or suppression.

The attempt at cultural and political struggle in the absence of economic strength has been tried before. Mao was wise to the realities of international manipulation. His ability to create not just economic but cultural mimicry in China’s natural sphere of influence—from the upper subcontinent to Indochina and Korea—just as the Neo-Confucian Tang had done, speaks to his place in a Chinese continuity. Ultimately, though, Mao’s China was too poor and too chaotic to consolidate this mimicry into a true rival to American power. It was also focused on a much nearer Soviet rival with a political presence in many of China’s neighbouring countries.

Mao’s successors undertook a change in course, strengthening and organizing Chinese society by pulling away from the social disintegration of the Cultural Revolution. In the decades since, its growing global power has been chiefly economic. However, it is possible to spot some of the weaknesses in this path to inclusion in the existing world order.

Energy is a particularly high-risk sector. The red herring of Chinese compliance with the spirit of the Paris Accords is belied by their continued heavy investment in Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, both instrumental in the Belt and Road project. China has in essence taken control of the Turkmenistani petroleum market. Meanwhile, we find China in Afghanistan supporting the anti-opium Taliban against the Western-backed regime and its Lapis Lazuli corridor scheme, coupled with domestic crackdowns in Xinjiang, where the Central Asian pipelines enter China.

All these moves betray the desire of the Chinese government to pursue new sources of petroleum—not the policy of a government with any real faith in alternative energy as a short-term basis for energy policy, despite its push to diversify in that direction. Further, China’s hesitation to become directly involved in governance issues will make it difficult to deal with the existing slave and drug trades, both extremely lucrative for numerous state and non-state actors in Central and Western Asia. A Western focus on institution-building allows it to compete for states which are focused on suppressing crime and establishing rule of law.

Above all, the near position of China compared to the U.S. makes these countries particularly incentivized to resist any Chinese attempt at soft power self-promotion. The “civilization-state” trope pervasive in international Western media obscures far more than it reveals about China’s place in the eyes of its satellites and partners. Countries like Vietnam, Korea, and Japan refuse to accept a subservient place in a greater Chinese cultural whole. It was a mere four centuries ago that the Japanese elite could not assimilate Chinese cultural values quickly enough. Today, Chinese attitudes toward those it perceives to be in a space under its domination—whether historically in Asia or more recently in Africa—are not so readily overlooked.

If China does not find a way to exercise soft power, such that that it is welcomed for more than practical reasons, resentment against the Chinese will steadily increase as they expand their control of trade and foreign affairs in Africa and Eurasia. These ruptures represent important avenues for possible Western counter-measures against Chinese influence in contested regions. The Chinese regime can keep knocking down churches, stamping out Falun Gong, and culturally obliterating the Tibetans and Muslims of Xinjiang, but it will fail if it cannot project genuine moral and cultural authority, in addition to simple power, on the international stage. The Chinese leadership is doubtless aware of this.

Africa offers a wonderful example of the mixed realities behind the success of China on the world stage. Just as it showcases many of China’s greatest coups, it also betrays Chinese weaknesses. Myriad reputable masters of Western business in Forbes, Bloomberg, and elsewhere speak of how China is muscling the U.S. out of Africa; if America wants to continue to compete, it needs to match Chinese investment. China inarguably is outperforming America in Africa, but even those who agree on this point miss the essential fact that Africa is a means to an end for China. Specifically, it is a weapon to aid China in the conquest of Eurasia.

This contrasts with the Western piecemeal approach to its African relationships, with policies focusing on resource extraction and blocking Chinese expansion. Africa is valueless to the West—it is neither a gateway nor a guard on any markets or geopolitical blocs, as South America is. Yet, the Chinese have successfully kept the Western elite monitoring Africa while they have been drinking America’s milkshake in Peru and Panama practically unnoticed.

There are two principal mistakes onlookers make evaluating China in Africa. First, they think of Africa as a single unit of more or less equally distributed value (different sources of value, perhaps, but more or less equivalent value nevertheless). There are dozens of analyses of Chinese investment and interest in Africa, but one is hard-pressed to find regional or national reports on African investment; even Brookings focuses exclusively on Africa as a whole. In reality, it is the home of 1.2 billion individuals, speaking 3000 languages and living in 54 polities, all with unique and diverse histories, paths to independence, government types, minority politics, and marketable net worth. It includes many climatic and geological regions. China has been choosy in what it has “taken” and what it has left to the Americans.

Second, few have asked where China is devoting its time. In particular, little attention is given to understanding the regions of Chinese investment within the context of their colonial past. When this is done, a pattern emerges.

Intelligent imperialism is incremental and quotidian, not triumphalistic and flamboyant—a lesson history has taught well to all demagogues and would-be conquerors. Great battles make for great television, but the serious conqueror does not ride his horse into Hagia Sophia until he has no where else to conquer. Cecil Rhodes knew how to bide time (clearly demonstrated in his schemes against the Boers) and the Chinese businessmen, diplomats, and apparatchiks deployed in Africa seem to be taking leaves from his book. Almost all Chinese money finds its way into infrastructure—especially transit and energy. China has spread the remaining portion of its investments after Nigeria and Angola in Southern and Eastern Africa—Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, South Africa, and Mozambique.

What do they have in common? Most were British or Portuguese colonies for most of modern history. Britain and Portugal are bound historically by their mutual rivalry with Spain and their savvy control of trade roads, particularly those tied to the tremendous wealth of India. South Africa, the jewel of the British Empire in Africa, is once again uniquely important, controlling as it does the chief entryway to the Indian Ocean after the Suez Canal.

Even without the resource exports being dumped into the Atlantic by the Niger river, control of South Africa is a keystone for the entire Belt and Road approach to Eurasian market supremacy. Cyril Rhamphosa, as co-chair of FOCAC, as well as apparent, albeit tacit, Chinese support for land expropriation in South Africa, are part of the same strategy. If Zimbabwe can be taken as an historical model, the expropriation scheme would destroy any semblance of agricultural self-sufficiency in South Africa. This would leave China positioned to take over the food and infrastructure of the country in a way no Western power would dare.

It is unscrupulous genius that could make the Chinese venture in Africa an order of magnitude more profitable than the European dalliance. The citizens of these various nations have done little but grumble as Chinese businesses and agencies slowly come to dominate infrastructure. The governments will not likely speak up either—rampant corruption will work its way around that, and as Chinese “partnership” places no ideological demands on any of its non-Chinese beneficiaries, it provides corrupt governments with both a crutch and a scapegoat.

American policy in Africa is exactly the opposite. The Chinese have painted America into that corner by ensuring the U.S. wastes most of its time in former French and British colonies, forcing Western social ideology down the throats of cultures which have no interest it. The British, much longer in the imperial game, knew Africa was valuable to them in protecting serious investments, especially in India. China, too, seems to understand that its real economic value is in South, Southeast, and East Asia, and that to control African shipping is to control that value. Their recent move to seize Kenya’s biggest port speaks to this. America could match, even exceed China’s investment in Africa and still never reap the same benefit.

This is, however, wholly dependant on Chinese power in Eurasia, which is decidedly less stable and sure than Africa—and African tactics are not exportable to the East. China has a long history of regional hegemony in its native hemisphere, and has benefited by refraining from the sleights of hand and shows of force they have made in Africa. Korea and Vietnam have both experienced Chinese military shows of force, but Korea in particular became much of what it is because of Chinese cultural influence, especially religious influence, as opposed to military might. In spite of Japan’s aforementioned history of Sinophilia, Chinese armies threatened Japan only once in its history, under Mongol leadership. Conversely, Chinese tomes on education, religion, social mores, and even fortune-telling and governance circulated broadly. Confucianism and the Chinese reading of Buddhism were received across the region and are in large part what drove the “oriental” tropes of colonial observers.

As previously mentioned, Mao did in fact attempt projection of cultural and ideological power, even as he remade China and established a sovereign Chinese state. Some residual influence exists among groups such as India’s Naxalites and Nepal’s communist government, but it has largely waned since his death. Future modes of Chinese cultural and ideological power will look highly distinctive and adapted to the modern day.

Neighboring Asian states respond poorly to naked displays of power—Japan and the Europeans learned this all too well in the course of the twentieth century, and China learned it in the days of Truong Trac, and increasingly they seem to expect it. But as China has yet to embark on a new wave of soft power competition in the region, it is currently restricting itself to economic rather than cultural hegemony. This means that whatever non-economic geopolitical status they gain for now depends on power vacuums resulting from Western internal conflicts on foreign policy.

Belt and Road cannot become a true new Silk Road unless there is something greater than practical necessity selling it to participants. In a sense, participation must be involuntary—either through monopoly, addiction, or genuine attraction that penetrates the economic superstructure of a culture and touches something in its heart. Greed is an excellent motivation, but illegal trade is a dangerous hurdle for the new, global China. Petroleum, less dangerous, is too short-term an investment, and it perpetuates the current international system that grants the West economic hegemony.

The West is certainly feeling the pinch, as the recent arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou demonstrates. However, the American obsession with pet projects in the Middle East looms as large as any trade deficit with China in its discussions of grand strategy. Western commentators will make much of the opening of the Lapis Lazuli route, but this is short-term at best. If China could position Iran as its middle-man again and get Europe, which finds Belt and Road attractive, to consider detente with the Islamic Republic, it could legitimately remake the world order. To do that, though, Iran has to see China as far more than just a powerful and capricious force that could momentarily act as its protector. China must meet Iran, and all potential partners, where they stand not only in relation to the West, but in their own historical continuity.

Monopoly is difficult to procure—China offers little that cannot be made elsewhere, and as the populist movements of the West are showing, even the most well-off places will not allow low labor costs to justify permanent ties to China. This leaves only one option which can solidify a Chinese world order: the norms of culture, diplomacy, and politics upon which the world order operates must ultimately be under Chinese influence. Countries within that order must remain in it, through either attraction or necessity or both. Countries responding to Chinese rivalry are unlikely to succeed unless this becomes part of their long-term understanding of China’s goal, through the lens of seeing Chinese “win-win” economic relationships as a bridge to economic strength, and ultimately cultural and political strength.

Long-term Chinese power depends on the ability to provide the whole package of cultural, social, and economic value to its hegemonic sphere while maintaining sufficient distance to guarantee stability. This depends not on a mere hands-off approach China has thus far pursued, but developing a working relationship with local expectations and mores, and accepting the status bestowed within those local and regional paradigms. On its current course, the Belt and Road initiative is wholly market-driven; it is wholly pragmatic and economic. Given the strategic and political history of the Chinese leadership, it is unlikely to remain so.

Stephen Borthwick is a world-historian. His most current projects include a biography of Oswald Spengler and an analysis of religious revival and multipolarity. He holds an M.A. in social science from the University of Chicago.