An illustration of Chinese Leader Xi Jinping. | Photo Credit: Adrià Fruitós / For The Times

Underpinning the New World Order: China and its Soft Power

The birth of a new world order seems to be well underway, leaving the multilateral rules-based international order that ensured a level of predictability, peace and prosperity to crumble away. But what does this new world order with new world leaders bring?

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Eloquently analogised by Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan at the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday (Sept 24), “a new world order is being born, and any obstetrician here will tell you the moment of delivery is actually the most dangerous”. 

Mr Balakrishnan commented on the trajectory the world is hurtling towards, deviating from the “inclusive and rules-based multilateral system that has underwritten peace and progress for all of us since World War II”. 

There are two countries that are arguably contesting the status quo — China and Russia. China has presented itself as a powerhouse in the 21st century while Russia seems to reclaim its Cold War superpower status. The overt actions from the Sino-Russo duo are changing the global economy and energy supply system to name a few. 

Xi Jinping Meets Putin, Says China Will Work With Russia As 'Great Powers'
Xi and Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit 2022. | Photo Credit: NDTV

But what this article is more interested in are the undercurrent shifts caused by the rise of China in particular. The intention is to boldly attempt at hypothesising what the world will look like with China sharing the mantle with the United States (US), through the use of soft power as a baseboard. 

19th Century to Present: How the Current International Order Emerged

However, to understand how the current international order is being challenged, one must first analyse what exactly the current international order is. 

Referencing RAND Corporation (Research and Development)’s research report titled “Understanding the Current International Order”, the international order “is a stable, structured pattern of relationships among states” that involves rulemaking institutions, international political organisations and regimes, among others, ultimately reflecting “all aspects of … interaction that exist among states.” 

As seen from the past two centuries, Western values and philosophies have arguably become an accepted standard that all countries aspire to have, emulate, or are judged by. But how did this happen? 

There is a clear demarcation in recent world history, with 1945 (the end of World War II) being a pivotal year. The current world order was built and solidified in the 19th and later part of the 20th century with Britain leading the former and the US leading the latter. 

Joseph Nye, the theorist of ‘Soft Power’, further affirms that both countries “advanced their values by creating a structure of international rules and institutions that were consistent with the liberal and democratic nature of the British and American economic systems”, as such granting each country global super power status in their respective golden centuries. 

The end of the second world war resulted in the emergence of the US as the global superpower, for it gave America the golden ticket to restructure the international order that advanced and legitimised its values of capitalism, self-determination, democracy and establishing international organisations.

China a Disruptor of the Current World Order— a Biassed View?

With the 19th century named the British Century and the 20th century named the American Century, the neologism of “the Chinese Century” is thus raising alarms for the status quo, for it signals an emergence of a new superpower of the century. 

The anxieties expressed about China’s rise stems from their supposed revisionist actions that threaten the legitimacy and entrenchment of Britain and the US’ international rules and institutions that have shaped global interests and values. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken posited that the US does not seek to restrain China from its role as a major power, but will “defend and strengthen the international law, agreements, principles and institutions that maintain peace and security; protect the rights of individuals and sovereign nations” in response to what they feel is China’s vision to “move [the US] away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years.” 

But, how is China undermining “international law, agreements, principles and institutions that maintain peace and security”?

How is China “mov[ing] us away from the universal values that sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years”? 

More importantly, from whose perspective are we determining China’s actions to be threatening to the world order; and how different are China’s actions from theirs when they emerged as global superpowers? 

Britain led the industrial revolution, establishing the gold standard and free trade system. Expanding its empire and changing the colonies domestic policies to ensure Britain’s position in the 19th century global order. Likewise, China implemented the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is a major economic and infrastructure project aimed at improving connectivity and cooperation among almost 190 countries spanning over Asia, Africa and Europe. 

The growth of the BRI over the years. | Photo Credit: GIS

America strengthened its extensive foreign relations web and secured US friendly governments during the Cold War through the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan was an economic assistance program aimed to restore the economic infrastructure of post-war Europe. Countries that  subscribed to it had to participate in the American ‘free trade and capitalism’ system. Similarly, China’s outpour of investment into the continent of Africa hinges on African leaders’ public support for Beijing’s “One China” policy

Though the news tends to frame this relationship to be one-sided, with China benefitting at the expense of Africa, African leaders do have overlapping interests too vis-a-vis Chinese investment: gaining political recognition and legitimacy and contribution to the region’s economic development. 

Sino-African relations have its notable moments: African leaders supporting Beijing over its actions in Tiananmen Square in June 1989; and the shared belief that human rights such as “economic rights” and “rights of subsistence” take precedence over personal individual rights  and liberal democracy the West champions. 

Nonetheless, whether the rise of China is interpreted from a revisionist or status quo lense, it is interesting to note how they have made use of soft power in their power play. 

The Power of Soft Power

Joseph Nye, the theorist behind the concept of ‘soft power’, describes soft power as “the second face of power”. In his book titled ‘Soft Power’, he theorises an alternative to the ‘carrots and sticks’ tactic of hard power: “a country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries — admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness — want to follow it.” 

The key operative for soft power is co-opting people, not coercing them. 

Power can be interpreted as a spectrum, with command (hard power) and co-option (soft power) on opposite ends. Hard power is usually characterised by coercion via force and sanctions to inducement through payments and bribes, while soft power refers to agenda setting by institutions to pure attraction from values, culture and policies. 

In the latest ranking of soft power by the Soft Power 30, China ranks at 27th in 2019. The main contributing assets to its soft power are culture, such as the record number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites or the spread of its popular culture like the popular drama series Yanxi Palace and apps like Tiktok and WeChat; education, and enterprise. 

Josh Kurlantzick’s ‘Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World’ unpacks that China’s economic power and economic success story is a huge driver of its soft power. The economic opportunities that China is offering have made many countries open to Chinese companies and education. 

China has fashioned itself to be an economic juggernaut, ranking just behind the USA for the second-largest economy with a GDP of US$17.7 trillion (S$25.40 trillion). The rapid exponential economic growth since it opened its economy in the 1970s was driven by urbanisation, industrial production and manufacturing exports

The Economist noted that China’s record growth has exerted a “gravitational pull” on the world’s economic output, pulling it away from the North Atlantic all the way to Siberia. 

How the rise of China pulled the gravitational centre of the global economy away from the North Atlantic. | Photo Credit: The Economist 

The International Strategic Analysis (ISA) confirmed that China is the “unquestioned second-leading power in the world”, and as China continues on its current path of consolidating its power and modernising its economy and military, “it will gradually move into a position to challenge the United States for the top spot in these Country Power Rankings at some point later this century.” 

Unravelling the Red String

The push for economic dominance and influence is not unique to China alone. Though China’s take on it has garnered criticisms, the nature and content of criticisms fall under the thematic dimension of values, morals and principles. 

Insights to China’s political values and foregin policy can be found in President Xi’s keynote speech at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2022 in April, where he laid out China’s proposed international agenda. 

Xi recollected the lessons the past few years have taught, highlighting that all countries should “follow the trend of the times featuring peace, development and win-win cooperation, move in the direction of building a community …  and rise to challenges and build a bright future through cooperation.”

He also highlighted in his speech that the agenda for the international community consisted of: “defend[ing] people’s lives health”, “promot[ing] economic recovery”, “maintain[ing] peace and stability in the world”, and ”work[ing] together to tackle global governance challenges”. 

President Xi speaks the language expected of any world leader. He emphasises the same principles and values that America emphasises. Yet, China is allegedly threatening the world order. Is there a double standard or is there some validity in this criticism?  

Lowy Institute, the Australian-based, independent international political, strategic and economic policy-relevant research think tank, brings up a very valid point: “the concept of a ‘rules-based international order’ has become increasingly devoid of substance”, being made from building blocks which are “unstated understandings of global rules, institutions and conventions”.

The think tank further adds another dimension to the debate; which is that the recurrent descriptions of rules-based international order, including international law and non-binding norms of state of behaviour “rarely if ever explain the significance of distinguishing between legal and merely political norms.” 

Now this does not absolve China, or any other country for that matter, from any deviations from the expected and from the norms; nor does it create grounds to ensure culpability. What it does is that it creates a ‘loophole’ which countries can exploit to their benefit. 

So where does that leave Blinken’s claim of Chinese violations? 

Ben Scott, part of the Lowy Institute, says that there is no evidence of China’s intent “to overturn the global order and impose in its palace a Chinese Brave New World”,  and observes that China’s goal is “to refashion rather than overturn the old order”. 

John Ikenberry also points out that even if China aspires to undermine and replace the existing liberal international order, “the constraints on doing so are overwhelming”

For China, “the international order and international rules have clear definitions’‘ said Wang Wenbin, the Chinese Foregin Ministry Spokesman. “China proposes that all countries should uphold the un-centered international system; safeguard the international order based on international law and the basic norms governing international relations underpinned by the principle of the UN Charter.”

On the surface level, it really does seem that China is playing ball and that the US is making mountains out of anthills. But the increasing references to the UN Charter and the UN itself to be the centre of the international order may not be as progressive and liberal as it seems. 

Chinese officials have been increasingly taking up many key positions in the UN — four out of 15 specialised agencies are led by Chinese officials. China is one of the five permanent members in the United Nations Security Council as well.

This means that China could possibly make use of the organisational structure of the international organisation to benefit itself by shaping international norms.  

Map showing suspected reeducation camps and detention centres. | Photo Credit: Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Whilst the assertions that China is totally upheaving the entire world order and ushering in the ‘wild wild west’ might be a complete over-exaggeration, the subversion of expectations, concepts and norms to be more China centric (or at least a less US centric) is a legitimate concern. 

How disruptive the Chinese-centric world order will be will be known in due time if China continues to expand its influence and follow up its multi-pronged approach. If anything is for certain, China will continue to remind the world of the large grey area in geopolitics that many are trying to classify as either white or black.

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