In a short period of time, Beijing has proven that it can shift its foreign policy quickly and woo the world, often focusing on countries America has alienated. China has drastically changed its image in many parts of the world from dangerous to benign. It may already be the preeminent power in parts of Asia, and it could develop China-centered spheres of influence in other parts of the globe, like Central Asia or Africa. Even longtime American allies like Australia have moved closer to Beijing.

China also, however, may not be able to build its soft power indefinitely. As we have seen, greater familiarity with China will expose many countries to the People’s Republic’s flaws. China’s promises of aid and investment could take years to materialize, yet Beijing has created heightened expectations about its potential as a donor and investor in many countries. China’s exportation of labor, environmental, and governance problems alienates average people in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. China’s support for autocratic rulers in countries like Zimbabwe and Sudan angers civil society leaders and opposition politicians. If Beijing seems to be dropping its preference for noninterference and “win-win” relations, it will spark fears in countries like Vietnam already suspicious of China. It also could reinforce the idea that despite Beijing’s rhetoric of cooperation, when it comes to core interests, China, like any great power, will think of itself first.

The Mekong River offers an obvious example. Though China promises to cooperate peacefully with other countries, in the development of the river, China has proven both uncooperative and meddling. It has meddled by refusing to join the multilateral group monitoring the river and by injecting itself into other nations’ domestic politics to get politicians to support China’s damming of the river.

China could further alienate other nations if it seems to be using multilateral institutions as a cover, without jettisoning Beijing’s own more aggressive, even military aims. Despite signing a deal with the Philippines and Vietnam for joint exploration of the disputed South China Sea, Beijing has not retracted its claim to large swaths of the water. Any Chinese decision that appears arrogant or targeted toward Chinese domination of the region will cause a backlash. Even as officials in Vietnam signed the joint exploration deal, they privately warned that they still could not trust their Chinese counterparts enough to share the most important data with Beijing.

Similarly, if China drops its rhetoric of “win-win” relationships and makes more aggressive, unilateral demands, it could provoke a backlash in Asia, which is relying on multilateral institutions to restrain China from regional dominance. Some Chinese officials have begun to act more assertively. In 2003 one former Chinese ambassador to Singapore warned that Beijing would no longer bow to other nations; as she told a business forum, Singaporeans had to lose their “air of superiority” if they wanted to continue dealing with China. “The Chinese diplomats I’ve dealt with have become increasingly sure and proud of their status, and disdainful of Southeast Asian nations,” says one Singaporean diplomat. As the Chinese diplomats abandon their style of appearing to listen to every nation’s concerns, he says, they will lose some of their appeal. In Singapore, China’s growing diplomatic assertiveness has suggested to some Singaporean officials that China’s charm is merely a facade. Fear of China, along with mistrust of Chinese charm, in fact, explains in part why Singapore has boosted defense cooperation with the United States in recent years.

China’s trade relations, too, ultimately could limit its soft power. If China builds the kind of trade surpluses with the developing world that it enjoys with the United States, it could stoke local resentment. Eventually, Beijing could wind up looking little different to people in Asia or Africa or Latin America than the old colonial powers, who mined and dug up their colonies, doing little to improve the capacity of locals on the ground. Whole regions could become trapped in a cycle of mercantilism, in which they sell natural resources to China and buy higher-value manufactured Chinese goods.

Latin America faces the greatest danger of mercantilism, but other regions could face a mercantilist trap. In Thailand companies now export $3.9 billion in electronics to China and import more than $6 billion worth. In Malaysia one study of local manufacturing found that the country is rapidly losing its ability to compete with China in manufactured goods. “To compensate for the decline,” the study concluded, “Malaysia is turning towards resource-based exports [like] oil, petroleum products, liquefied natural gas, and wood-based products [that] are top exports to China.”

Beijing also may fail in its efforts to persuade diaspora Chinese to return. After years of Chinese officials traveling across the world wooing ethnic Chinese organizations, many diaspora Chinese are shocked by the welcome they get when they finally travel to the People’s Republic. In Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and many other countries, local ethnic Chinese businesspeople constantly complain about China. Many of these diaspora Chinese made investments in China expecting some kind of preferential treatment on the mainland. When their Chinese business partners squeezed them, or mainland Chinese looked down on them because they did not speak Mandarin, some found that being in China just emphasized how little they had in common with people in Beijing or Shanghai.

“Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia go back to China and find they don’t like China,” said Ong Hok Ham, an Indonesian Chinese historian. “They are disappointed in how different they are from the Chinese.” Conversely, mainland Chinese do not necessarily see the diaspora Chinese as brothers and sisters. Phillip Overmyer, executive director of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, says that the chamber conducted research on issues Singaporean businesspeople face in China. According to Overmyer, “The [mainland] Chinese management said they had trouble dealing with Singaporeans because Singaporeans didn’t understand Chinese culture, even if they spoke Mandarin.”

Even diaspora Chinese companies with the closest links to China sometimes can feel alienated. Charoen Pokphand, the Thai conglomerate that invested so much time over the years cultivating Chinese leaders, found in the mid-1990s that Beijing had denied it valuable telecommunications concessions. Most famously, in the early 1990s China allowed Singaporean companies to build an enormous industrial park in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou. Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, took a personal interest in the industrial park. Despite this high-level support, the Singaporeans still came away angry. They complained that their Chinese partners backed a rival industrial park. They alleged that their partners were piling up wasteful spending, resulting in tens of millions in losses. Finally, the Singaporeans just gave up, selling majority ownership in the park to mainland Chinese developers.

When these countries have concerns about China, the obvious place for them to turn is the United States, the other great power. Asian nations are always “playing the United StatesS off of the Chinese — dangling what the Chinese will offer in order to get the United States more interested in them,” one senior American policy maker told me. Washington should be prepared to simultaneously leverage Beijing’s charm on issues of interest to both the United States and China, like preventing disruptions in global energy supplies, while rebuilding America’s soft power so that the United States has the ability to confront China on issues where American and Chinese interests diverge. To accomplish this, America first has to understand Chinese soft power.

The United States needs to comprehend exactly how China exerts influence. In part, this can be accomplished through efforts like Congress’s U.S.-China Engagement Act, which would create more American missions in China. But Washington also should take a page from its Cold War policy. During the Cold War, Washington had at least one person in each embassy who studied what the Soviets were doing on the ground in that country; today the United States should have one person in each embassy examining that nation’s bilateral relations with China — China’s aid policies, Chinese investment, China’s public diplomacy, Chinese leaders’ visits.

As anyone who has worked for a large organization knows, if your boss tells you to do five tasks, you will try to finish all five. But if your boss hires you to do only one job, like studying China’s charm offensive, you will be more likely to produce great work, since you have no subsidiary responsibilities. After all, Chinese embassies closely monitor U.S. relations with each nation, even as Chinese diplomats cooperate with their American peers on topics of mutual concern. Surely, the world’s greatest power should be able to figure out what China is doing while also dealing with Chinese diplomats on issues both Washington and Beijing care about, such as drugs, HIV, and nuclear weapons proliferation.

With a better understanding of China’s soft power, Washington can more systematically set clear limits — for itself, for China, and for other nations — and establish where it believes China’s soft power possibly threatens American interests. As we have seen, tThese U.S. interests include other nations’ territorial integrity; support for the United States in case of a conflict in regions like Southeast Asia; control of sea lanes and waterways; access to resources; formal alliances with foreign nations; and, perhaps most important, the promotion of democratization and good governance.

To protect these interests, the United States must focus on rebuilding its soft power. Otherwise, it will face even more situations where citizens of democratic nations put pressure on their leaders not to cooperate with the United States. Indeed, unlike during the Cold War, as the world has become more democratic, America’s core interest — its national security — increasingly relies on wooing foreign publics.

Joshua Kurlantzick is a visiting scholar in the Carnegie Endowment

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