Soft power describes the ability of a country to influence others without employing force or coercion. From Confucius Institutes to educational exchanges, from think tanks to the export of Chinese art and media, China’s recent push for soft power highlights its understanding that power is multifaceted. A legitimate world leader is not only able to push with military and economic dominance, but also pull with cultural and ideological appeal. Like other world leaders throughout history, China also faces many obstacles in its bid for soft power: problems like its aggressive military actions in the South China Sea disputes and failure to liberalize domestically pose threats to China’s perceived legitimacy and popularity abroad. How does soft power play a role in China’s most vital foreign policy objectives? What are the challenges and opportunities China faces, both domestically and internationally, in its bid for non-coercive leadership?
In the international realm, soft power is changing the way we view great power politics. China’s growing leadership role in institutions like the New Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization challenges existing dominant institutions and constructs an alternative architecture to the post-war Bretton Woods system. Increasingly, China’s interests are tied to its ability to project soft power. Establishing a positive image is necessary to obtain cooperation and credibility among regional partners in initiatives like One Belt, One Road. Likewise, continuous economic reforms are contingent upon China’s ability to attract global business and investment. Soft power also redefines the competition between China and U.S.: in spite of its economic and military gains, China suffers from a negative image abroad and still lags behind the United States in persuasive power and global influence, with many claiming its soft power deficit is to blame. Is this the dawn of a new, “alternative” paradigm of great power politics, where power is not measured in guns and swaths of land, but in cultural clout, education and “hearts and minds”?
In the 21st century, soft power will prove to be one of the greatest hurdles as well as one of the most important opportunities for China’s global rise.