In terms of hard power, China has, first of all, the size of its economy and the strength of its domestic market. In addition, the competitiveness of goods and services from Chinese companies has allowed them to project themselves beyond their borders with great efficiency, as well as to access raw materials and other international resources. Without concern for conditioning their economic cooperation with respect for human rights, and bringing in matching financing, Chinese banks and companies have also permeated almost all developing countries.
In military terms, its armed forces have greatly developed and now possess sophisticated military equipment, in tandem with the country’s growing technological capacity. Its navy is now a force to be reckoned with in the Western Pacific and should soon project its presence into other areas of the Pacific and Indian Ocean.
In terms of soft power, China has, right from the start, the influence of its multi-millennial civilization – which includes some of the most important schools of thought seeking harmony between man and nature, some of the most sophisticated art ever produced, a great esteem for writing, literature and historical records, traditional Chinese medicine, refined gastronomic schools; and the international projection of its culture, admired and studied in various parts of the world.
On the other hand, the fact that it has long been a developing country, an early member of the Non-Aligned Movement, with a non-confrontationist stance and without a history of colonialism or imperialism, has historically allowed China to have close relations with many developing countries. An efficient and proactive diplomacy and the relevance of the Chinese Diaspora – especially in Southeast Asia – are other aspects of Chinese soft power. These also include an extraordinary capacity for innovation and technological advancement, typical of China in the last 20 years.
In 2007, [former Chinese President] Hu Jintao addressed the 17th Communist Party of China Congress, saying, “If your hard power is increasing, you are likely to scare your neighbors, but if you increase your soft power at the same time, they are less likely to form alliances against you. In that sense, the goal is a smart power policy.”
When the US adopted a smart power strategy, it was already a superpower in terms of hard power and already with enormous soft power on a planetary scale. However, the same is not true of China.
Geography gave the U.S. unimpeded and unrivaled maritime borders in two oceans; and when they intervened in several countries in the Caribbean, it was at a time when there was no global public opinion or television cameras to witness their exercise of hard power. In China’s case, on the other hand, geography has not been so benevolent; on its maritime border stand several rival countries or rivals’ allies. The projection of its navy and the manner and grounds for claiming the entire South China Sea alarmed several of its neighbors and caused a decrease in China’s soft power.
The U.S. strategy of containing China by military means puts the focus on hard power; the reaction of the Chinese government, nationalistic and with low strategic restraint, catalyzes the erosion of China’s soft power.