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China 2.0

From Soft To Hard Power, China's New Ambitions

Presented as a peaceful power for the past decade, China is now seen as a potential military aggressor by many. Amid the tug of economic and political interests, China keeps rising.

Toughening up?
Toughening up?
Gabriel Grésillon

BEIJING — Here lies the vision of China"s peaceful rise. It is a concept first put forward in 2003 by Chinese authorities as the country was gradually reinforcing its role in international affairs.

But this concept comes with many layers: Even while China is exporting its products all over the world, Beijing explains that it has no hegemonic ambitions. So what happens when we try to convince ourselves of the good faith behind the term "Peaceful Rise?" Can China be a superpower that is fundamentally unintrusive, and not a threat for its neighbors?

What we must remember is that modern China did have wars, with India in 1962 and with Vietnam in 1979. Much of that has been quietly tucked under the proverbial rug, as the history has in some ways been whitewashed.

But in 2014, there is no more hiding under that rug. The so-called "Chinese Dream" that President Xi Jinping invokes regularly seems to be an empty shell, while the country takes significant steps forward on the military front.

Of course, the territorial disputes between China and neighboring countries are not new, but the attitude of Beijinghas totally changed over the past few years. While policy in the past was guided by prudence and a desire to maintain the status quo, Beijing now feels more confident to play the role of a "troublemaker" in the neighborhood.

This scenario is only partially true when it comes to the standoff with Japan. The origin of the story is that Japan intended to nationalize the Senkaku Archipelago (called Diaoyu by the Chinese) to complete infrastructure projects, pushing China into a confrontation. It's also true that Japan’s historical revisionism won't help relieve the tension in the region.

But ultimately the problem is that the Chinese government is contesting the status quo on the Senkaku-Diaoyu Archipelago, which is currently under Japanese authority. Recently, Chinese fighter planes have approached their Japanese counterparts, a dangerous act of military provocation.

Weak link

It is difficult to judge the legitimacy of these territorial claims, from both China and from other countries. Indeed, China's maritime policy is hindered by a vast string of disputed islands that limit its military operation. Especially when seen in comparison with the U.S. — the master of the two oceans — the disputes in the China Sea are seen as a weak link of Chinese military capability, and the resulting limitations are a source of frustration.

But the real change at hand involves the broader question of Chinese diplomacy. Presented as a peaceful power for more than five years, China has now become a potential aggressor in the eyes of its neighbors. This risks undermining the global reputation it has worked hard to achieve as a peaceful power.

Public relations experts know that a high-quality brand must be created over time, but a bad image can ruin it all in a very short time. And this is also true for a country trying to build its reputation on the global stage.

China realizes the importance of soft power in order to compete with the image of the American Dream: It invests a great deal in its Confucius Institutes of culture and higher learning around the world, and expands its media influence as well.

But despite its continued attempts at "Panda Diplomacy," the message it sends to its closest neighbors mainly provokes fear. The fallout is already visible: Southeast Asian countries are beginning to form a common front, while Japan seizes the opportunity to play the role of an "elder brother" of the region, including a recent announcement of the delivery of several naval vessels to Vietnam.

If China really wants to develop its soft power, and refine its seduction strategy, it should not only change its attitude completely, but also develop a more mature diplomacy able to match its ambitions in international affairs.

Right now, all China’s diplomatic efforts are guided by a policy of total non-interference, which reflects complete indifference towards anything that doesn’t directly concern China. Soft power requires engagement and a subtle touch indeed.

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