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In Diplomacy, China should balance the use of Hard and Soft power; By D. S. Rajan

C3S Paper No.0162/2015

An interesting article by an influential academician asking the Xi Jinping administration to adopt a foreign policy course, which balances the requirements of both assertion and courtship, has come to notice in the recent period.  The write-up , captioned “ Balance Between China’s Hard and Soft Power”, authored  by Professor Shi Yinhong, School of American Studies, Renmin University, Beijing, in the August 6,2015 edition of the  China Daily,  USA,   HYPERLINK “”, has confirmed that “China’s foreign policy has been undergoing some positive changes in order to allow it to play a bigger role in Asia and the West Pacific region. The changes gained pace after President Xi Jinping pushed for the implementation of the  Belt and Road Initiative, which he proposed in 2013, and advocated Asian people’s leadership in Asian affairs at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia at Shanghai in May 2014”.

According to the article, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), under President Xi Jinping, is strengthening its  “hard power”, which allows it to assert itself on its sovereignty and maritime rights and interests particularly in the Asia-Pacific; but the country should accord equal importance to its soft power, i.e the economic and financial power. It has then laid emphasis on the need for China to ensure that a balance between its strategic momentum and caution plays a central role in deciding the country’s strategic focus. Mentioning that China’s military strategy, especially the strong stance on South China Sea and East China Sea issues are effective as hard power in dealing with frictions with the US and Japan, it has cautioned that a tough posture could leave China with little maneuvering room to use its soft power, and increase the risk of confrontation with the US and Japan. In the coming years, China should therefore accord equal importance to its  “economic strategy” based on its economic and financial powers, as well as extensive diplomacy to balance its global image. The author has added that China has to soften some of its assertive claims and convince some neighboring countries of its peaceful rise, leaving little leeway for the US to forge a “contain-China front” in Asia.

The article referring to ‘Belt and Road initiative’, has said that the proposals covering areas stretching  northwest from China’s  coastal region through Central Asia to Europe, do not aim at  a regional economic integration which demands that countries compromise their sovereignty or accept foreign military presence on their soil. On the basis of fair distribution of benefits, which favor relatively less developed economies, the initiative could be transformed into an excellent example of international cooperation, allowing transnational enterprises even from countries not along the routes to take part in the projects. The article felt sure that  once this is done, the initiative will not only clear the doubts which some states have for the  two routes,  but will also serve the interests of medium and small countries that are directly involved.

The message coming through the article by Professor Shi is undoubtedly significant. Most important is the recommendation that China should soften its assertive claims against some neighboring countries in order to convince the latter about its ‘peaceful rise’ and thus prevent containment of China by a US-led front. Also notable is the assurance in the article that China’s Silk Road initiatives do not demand any compromise from the concerned nations of their sovereignty or acceptance from them of the presence of Chinese troops on their soil.

 The contents of the write-up reflect the foreign policy directions given by President Xi in his speech to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference (Beijing, 29.11.2014) which underlined the importance of economic interests in relations with Asian neighbors.  Xi  on the occasion did not press for a revision of the international order, as done before. He gave no hints that China is preparing for a global leadership role or planning to overtake the US’s power any time soon, even as the size of the country’s economy looks poised to get closer to that of the US.  A special feature of the speech has been Xi’s regional approach and  elucidation of a  ‘’Community of Destiny concept’’; the concept, as Xi viewed,   provided  for realizing Asia’s economic potential and durable security, stipulating that it  will be based on deep economic integration, but going beyond trade. It will be a vision of a political and security community in which economically integrated countries in the region support and defend one another from outside threats and intruders, as well as manage internal threats together through collaborative and cooperative mechanisms.

The appearance of the article has coincided with the trends prevailing in China since  Xi Jinping’s important address mentioned above. They are all signaling a shift of focus in the country’s  foreign policy from ‘core interests’ to ‘economic interests’; behind the shift could be the thinking of the Xi administration  that the country’s external security environment has improved and therefore a conciliatory foreign policy can be appropriate  for China.  Experts  agree that this thinking is getting reflected in the emerging different   perceptions in China.  Influential Chinese scholars have viewed that external factors like conflicts with Japan, the US and neighboring countries are still manageable for China and will not subvert external environment if they remain under control. They believe that security has not yet surpassed development as priority for party and government. While acknowledging that sovereignty is vital for the survival of China’s political system, they feel that its place in the order of national strategic priorities should be pushed back due to a lack of pressing external threats. They argue that “political and social unrest generated by an economic recession” is the greater danger now (Xiandai Guoji Guanxi, January 2013).

What one can expect therefore is China’s more and more adoption of a conciliatory foreign policy, especially towards neighbors; that can of course be balanced by its assertive approach wherever necessary, as being seen now in China’s moves in South China Sea.

This will be welcome news to the neighbors of the PRC who remain concerned over Beijing’s aggressive push of its territorial claims.

A key question will be how India would figure in the emerging hard power-soft power mixed foreign policy matrix in China.   The visits of President Xi Jinping to India in September 2014 and Prime Minister Modi to China in May 2015 have no doubt heralded an era of bonhomie between the two nations; the two unmistakably realize the importance of mutually beneficial economic cooperation. They have reached a consensus to improve bilateral ties looking beyond the dividing strategic issues like the border problem .The relations are now being described by both sides as “closer developmental partnership”. The PRC’s approach on India’s place in global affairs, seen during Modi’s visit looks positive.  China has taken note of India’s role in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (mentioned in the India-China Joint Statement for the first time), supported India’s aspirations to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, backed India’s taking part in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and welcomed India as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).  But in the strategic arena, outstanding issues among the two remain where they are. They include the border issue, LAC clarification, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, China’s ambivalence on Pakistan sponsored terrorism in India, India’s economic entry into South China Sea, China eying on the Indian Ocean and sharing of river waters. Under such circumstances, the present situation may point to the keenness of China under Xi Jinping  to maintain stability in its ties with  India; but, on the strategic issues dividing them , Beijing may prefer to ‘shelve ’ them for future, thus leaving the possibilities of its assertion against India open in future.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Contributing date – August 23, 2015.Email:

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