CHARM OFFENSIVE

China Buys The Soft Sell

By Joshua Kurlantzick
Sunday, October 15, 2006

North Korea may have conducted a nuclear test last week, but it was China that went a little ballistic. Beijing condemned its longtime ally, denouncing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's "flagrant and brazen" violation of global norms. Pyongyang, China declared, had "defied the universal opposition of international society."

Other nations joined the chorus of concern over North Korea's apparent entry into the nuclear club. But China remains the one country that can do more than fume and condemn. It now has the chance to wield the diplomatic influence it has carefully been amassing in recent years as it pursues a new strategy in Asia and elsewhere in the world. Call it Chinese power, 21st-century-style.

While Washington has focused on the fight against terrorism, China has quietly reoriented its foreign policy to emerge as a new advocate of "soft power" -- a combination of diplomatic outreach, cultural attractiveness and economic might that helps a nation persuade other countries to follow its lead.

North Korea is a case in point. China has lately become Pyongyang's major trading partner and source of aid. Chinese leaders have taken Kim on tours of their booming south to suggest how he might boost his backward economy, and they have trained North Korean officials in economic management. It was Beijing that helped persuade Pyongyang to come to the negotiating table for the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program.

It's all part of an international charm offensive that could threaten U.S. interests abroad, but could also -- if properly exploited by other nations -- transform the Asian giant into a more responsible member of the world community.

Beijing has embraced the concept of soft power with vigor. In recent years, it has dispatched more than 2,000 volunteer language instructors all over the world to teach Mandarin; upgraded its diplomatic corps (half of the country's 4,000 diplomats are reportedly younger than 35); boosted its foreign aid to match the United States as a donor in some countries; increased overseas investment; promoted the study of Chinese culture worldwide; and launched a frenzy of trade initiatives, developing more than 10 free-trade deals in the past five years.

China has even created its own version of the Peace Corps -- the China Association for Youth Volunteers. Like its U.S. counterpart, it sends young people to developing countries such as Burma, Ethiopia and Laos to work on long-term community-assistance projects -- and to polish China's global image in the process.

While it initially concentrated on the immediate neighborhood of Southeast Asia, China has lately expanded its soft power play into Latin America, Central Asia and Africa. Thousands of young professionals from sub-Saharan Africa now travel to China on scholarships provided by Beijing. Trade between the continent and China grew by more than 260 percent between 2001 and 2005. China offers Africa about $2.7 billion annually in loans and grants.

Beijing has also been busy planning Confucius Institutes -- Chinese language and culture schools attached to universities -- in key African nations such as Kenya, as well as countries such as Uzbekistan and the Philippines. And Chinese officials shrewdly advertise these initiatives at new summits such as the China-Africa Cooperation Forum, which was established in 2000, and the upcoming China-Africa summit next month.

The Chinese leadership's decision to go soft was a conscious one, a reaction to Western shunning after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and the failure of China's attempts in the 1990s to use its growing military force to intimidate its neighbors into choosing Beijing over Washington. And it has yielded some dazzling success.

A BBC poll last year of 22 nations found that nearly all believed that China played a more positive role in the world than the United States. Today, Southeast Asian officials compete for junkets and training in China. "We have no money, and this is the only training we can get," a top official in Laos's Foreign Ministry told me. Chinese aid funds roads and hospitals across Asia, and neighboring countries orient their commerce toward Beijing: Growing trade with China has transformed Chiang Saen, a formerly sleepy Thai village on the Mekong River. Today, container vessels arrive with crates of Chinese apples that are unloaded into trucks lined up at the town's port, while Chinese traders gather at flashy massage parlors to barter with importers.

China's newfound popularity could raise a host of problems internationally. Its emergence as a donor country may allow aid recipients to play Beijing off against organizations such as the World Bank. Just this summer, Chad moved toward evicting two oil companies, Chevron Corp. and Malaysia's Petronas, from a project backed by the bank, which had insisted that some of the oil profits be spent on improving social welfare. There's a chance that Chad may replace the oil firms with Chinese companies; at the same time that it was kicking out Chevron and Petronas, it was breaking relations with Taiwan and establishing ties with China. China's growing foreign investment could also contribute to environmental destruction, because Chinese firms have little experience with green policies at home.


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