An alternative title for this article could have also been “Is China (still) a peaceful soft power?” or “Why is China (still) a peaceful soft power?” for those who are more convinced, because the key to understanding the message we are trying to get across revolves around realizing that despite China’s impressive GDP, it is not quite ready for a wide ranges of roles on the international scene just yet.
If you visit the “New Here?” section of ChinaFund.com, you will find several articles pertaining to topics that tend to be misunderstood when it comes to China, for example an article about what China’s GDP does and doesn’t tell us, which can be directly accessed by clicking HERE. To summarize and put forth a general idea, let’s just say that no, a country is not able to become truly geopolitically dominant based on sheer nominal GDP, for reasons such as:
- The nominal GDP doesn’t tell us how developed or undeveloped a certain nation is from the perspective of the average individual, which is why metrics such as the GDP per capita shouldn’t be merely considered optional… including them in your analysis is downright mandatory
- Even under ideal circumstances, where linear GDP growth leads to linear government revenue growth and the authorities end up sitting on more and more capital, there are certain products/services money cannot buy right away. For example, a country cannot buy its way toward military supremacy overnight. In many cases, nations are forced to nurture their own research and development facilities because… well, other countries are more than happy to sell certain military products/services but aren’t always in a hurry to share their “best of the best” secrets
- The same principle is valid when it comes to influence. Can it be bought? Of course it can, with China’s firm grip on Africa being quite relevant to that effect. However, can dominant geopolitical influence be bought overnight? Most definitely not, with the best relationships oftentimes being those that took the longest to nurture
- Endogenous issues such as corruption needing to be tackled and again, this will take time even with the very best of intentions. The military sector (which we have put under the microscope through a dedicated article that can be accessed by clicking HERE) constitutes a more than relevant example, with corruption still representing a major issue despite the Xi Jinping administration making priority out of tackling it
Needless to say, reasons abound.
To keep things simple, we will clearly state that if it were truly possible to buy your way to military supremacy quickly, China would most definitely be there. In light of the fact that it is not the case, the Chinese authorities understand all too well that “patience” is the operative word when it comes to China’s geopolitical ambitions.
And if China’s history is to provide any guidance, patience is usually not lacking in Beijing. From keeping a low geopolitical profile so as not to irritate trading partners while you focus on growing your economy aggressively (the pre-2010 double digit GDP growth rates experienced by China) to gradually buying your way to geopolitical influence/relevance (for example through the Belt and Road initiative which has been analyzed HERE or China’s African ambitions, which have been analyzed HERE) and acting as a soft power, to eventually becoming a geopolitical superpower that turns our world into a multi-polar one (something Russia has wanted for quite a while), China seems to have no problems whatsoever with taking things one step at a time.
Is China a soft power at this point in time?
Is China a soft power for ethical reasons?
Most likely not.
For the most part, a fair case can be made that China is embracing the soft power strategy because it doesn’t really have all that many alternatives. A more aggressive approach would risk irritating trading partners and in light of the fact that pretty much all of the major ones are already irritated by the continuous trade deficit experienced with China… Beijing would essentially be playing with fire by adopting an overly-aggressive strategy and as mentioned previously, China much prefers embracing patience.
Will the status quo be altered?
It most definitely can be and there is a reasonable probability that it will.
This can happen for a wide range of reasons, but for the most part, three categories of reasons can be identified:
- Enough time passing and China eventually being ready to consider itself an assertive geopolitical superpower, with the many implications of that status. Economically ready, militarily ready and the list could go on and on
- China being drawn into a conflict ahead of time and proverbially showing its cards in a game where it doesn’t exactly have a strong enough hand yet. Those who have read at least a military strategy book here and there know all too well that historically speaking, this tends to occasionally be a strategy
- Exogenous, unexpected events essentially forcing China to be more assertive sooner than it would have wanted to. Unlike with category #2, this wouldn’t be due to calculated moves by its adversaries but rather as a result of random chains of events which were completely unplanned. Again, historical examples to this effect unfortunately abound as well
As a conclusion, this much is certain: for now, China understands all too well that it isn’t ready to become more than a soft power and has absolutely no issues whatsoever with playing the long-term game. Should geopolitical circumstances not provide challenges which force China’s hand in one way or another (either challenges orchestrated by adversaries or random ones), it is hard to believe the status quo will be meaningfully altered anytime soon. However, never saying never has been a wise approach with respect to geopolitics and for this reason, we cannot stress this enough: having all of your bases covered (no military pun intended) is a must and the ChinaFund.com can be of assistance with just that analysis-wise.