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Chinese Prudence vs. US Recklessness

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When American publishing magnate Henry R Luce (1898-1967) announced exactly 70 years ago the beginning of the "American Century," he correctly anticipated the United States' pre-eminence following World War II, but overestimated the duration of the Pax Americana.

Ironically, Luce who spent 15 years of his early life in China, would have been very much at home in the 21st-century, where globalization is increasingly more about Sinicization than Americanization.

The contrast between the erosion of American power and Beijing's ascension appeared vivid when American Vice President Joe Biden was obliged during his visit to China to address the concerns of the Chinese people who are "skeptical about America's future prospects" -- the wording used in his Chengdu
speech
. Biden had to repeat three weeks after the US Congress' acrimonious debate over the debt limit and the subsequent downgrading of the American credit rating by Standard & Poor's that the "US, which has never defaulted, will never default."

Obviously, Biden's defensive rhetoric could not hide the long-term problems of a country that has become sadly paralyzed by a parochial and short-sighted political establishment, which is unable to tackle debt addiction and resolve the contradiction of an overstretched military and the considerable financial interests of the military-industrial complex. While the world increasingly questions Washington's reliability, Beijing's credibility is on the rise and, in the eyes of many analysts, China's prudence balances America's irresponsibility.

China has more than US$3 trillion of foreign reserves and an economy in steady expansion despite global financial uncertainties. There are plans to build 221 cities with more than one million inhabitants by 2025, and eight hyper-modern megacities home to more than 10 million. The country has three companies in the top 10 of the Fortune Global 500 -- as much as the US -- has launched its first aircraft carrier and runs one of the world's most ambitious space program. Beijing's hard power is obviously developing at a stunning pace. "Knowledge, Networks and Nations," a recent study by the Royal Society, the United Kingdom's national science academy, concluded that China would overtake the US in published scientific output by 2013.

China's renewal is not only a super rapid quantitative progress but it is also defined by a rising qualitative global influence. One easily notices the signs of China's Westernization but China's embrace of modernity is also synonymous with the Sinicization of the global village.

In these times, it's apt to project a Chinese global narrative through increasingly sophisticated media, and while China is promoting Mandarin in more than 300 Confucius Institutes all over the world, it is also increasingly attracting more foreign students to its universities.

By relying on opinion leaders such as Zhang Weiwei or Eric X Li , who are equally at ease in the West and in the Sinosphere, as well as having highly competent experts in strategic international positions -- such as Zhu Min, the new deputy managing director at the International Monetary Fund, or Lin Yifu, the senior vice president at the World Bank -- China is also rapidly strengthening its soft power.

Following the work of American scholar Joseph Nye, it is common for analysts to limit the debate on national strength to hard and soft power, with a combination supposedly forming "smart power." However, the patterns of Beijing's transformation invite an enlargement on these reflections to consider a third dimension of power, "subtle power," which is, to a certain extent, the application of some of China's highest philosophical principles in the field of strategy.

Less spectacular than hard power, more intangible than soft power, subtle power aims to shape a context which maximizes the effectiveness of the two traditional dimensions of power. While hard power acts directly -- including by force -- to impose itself and soft power attracts and co-opts, subtle power sets the environment in which hard and soft power can produce optimal effects.

The extraordinary Chinese ability to contextualize prepares the country's top decision-makers -- certainly at the level of the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group of the Communist Party of China -- to have a holistic approach of world affairs. This should not be interpreted as a refusal to take a clear position on any singular question, but should be understood as the prudence to carefully consider how actions on one particular issue might affect the entire equilibrium of the system. While hard and soft power analyze and target the almost endless individual components of the global power game, subtle power apprehends synthetically their interactions.

Subtle power's efficacy lies in the permanent interplay of five elements. Firstly, it attributes a very high value to non-confrontation. Beijing's aptitude in implementing an active multidirectional diplomacy and avoiding unnecessary opposition not only provides opportunities to satisfy the needs of China's development, it also elevates the country's status.

Being able, for example, to maintain good relations with both Iran and Israel (Chen Bingde, the People's Liberation Army chief of staff was recently the guest of Benny Gantz, his Israeli counterpart), as well as with Tehran and Riyadh, Beijing is increasingly perceived in the Middle East as a factor of stability and a powerbroker.

By having simultaneous relations with North Korea, South Korea and the US, Beijing stands at the center of Northeast Asia's future. Revealingly, at the end of July, Ma Xiaotian, vice chief of staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) was in Seoul to reinforce the military cooperation with the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea), while several days later a flotilla of the PLA's Navy paid a friendship visit to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North.

Secondly, subtle power is associated whenever possible with non-interference. On its West, China neighbors with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, two relatively small countries (respectively 5,5 and 8 million inhabitants), but Beijing does not try to impose on these new and fragile States any macro-economic guidance or political roadmap.

While Afghanistan and China's Xinjiang province share 76 kilometers of border, it is the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization which are trapped in the Afghan quagmire. When the Soviet leaders decided to invade Afghanistan in 1979 they exemplified a counterproductive use of hard power and, by their disregard of subtle power, undermined the Soviet Union's long-term position.

The non-confrontational posture and the principle of non-interference are consistent with a policy of strategic independence whose objective is more about diminishing the risks of making enemies than the pursuit of alliances.

One can mistakenly label China's policy of non-interference as isolationism -- if one argues that isolationism is the opposite of interventionism. However, far from being mutually exclusive, isolationism and interventionism are in fact expressions of the same propagandist spirit -- isolationism being frustrated interventionism. China, which has never been agitated by a desire to convert the world to its norms and beliefs, does not have the idiosyncrasies of a disappointed crusader.

In other words, it is the absence of a missionary culture in China which fundamentally explains Beijing's insistence on non-interference.

Thirdly, subtle power envelops a permanent readiness for change. Beijing's recent moves toward pivotal Sudan can be seen as an illustration of this point. Despite its strong links with Karthoum -- Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir had talks in Beijing at the end of June -- China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited Juba -- the first foreign minister representing one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- only one month after South Sudan's declaration of independence.

In Libya, Beijing's agile diplomacy is also at work. Several hours after the entry of the rebels into Tripoli, the Chinese Foreign Ministry explained in a statement that "China respects the will of the Libyan people and wishes to play a positive role in the reconstruction of Libya along with the international community."

In March, China's tone was different when it strongly condemned the West for its assault on Muammar Gaddafi's forces although, in a significant nuance, Beijing did not block the UN Security Council resolution 1973 which authorized the air attacks -- and by doing so voted like Brazil, Russia, India and Germany.

Restraint should be considered as the fourth feature of subtle power. When American statesman Henry Kissinger evokes the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war in its magisterial On China, he remarks: "As in the Sino-Indian War [October-November 1962], China executed a limited 'punitive' strike followed immediately by a retreat." More generally, Beijing is well aware that the capacity to limit one-self and to avoid any kind of excess -- including unnecessary military adventures -- is on the long term the condition to preserve one's relative strength.

By contrast with European historical dynamics, the effort to unify the Chinese world has always been one of the Chinese civilization main trends. In this perspective, the future of Taiwan is -- with the territorial integrity of the People's Republic of China -- one of the most important issues for Beijing's leadership.

Although both sides are still technically at war, 1.6 million mainlanders visited the island in 2010 injecting more than $3 billion in Taiwan's economy. Expectedly, Beijing reacts by strong statements when it considers than the US is interfering in China's internal affairs but the mainland's Taiwan policy illustrates also Beijing's use of restraint.

In fact, the more the mainland has the power to isolate the island -- using its formidable financial, economic and diplomatic strength -- the more it opts for the use of subtle power to shape a context compatible with its overall strategic objective. As Sun Tzi's disciples, Beijing's strategists keep in mind that the best generals prevail without a fight, only the less skilled have to navigate the fog of war.

Ambiguity is the fifth mark of subtle power. In Strategic Depth, Ahmet Davutoglu, a prominent academic and since 2009 the Turkish foreign minister, elaborates on Turkey's geopolitical advantages and develops the view of the "zero-problem policy" which has, in appearance, some similarity with China's non-confrontational posture.

However, Davutoglu's recurrent references to history in a series of speeches and media interviews have produced a certain uneasiness around Turkey and beyond -- including in Washington, as shown by some WikiLeaks cables -- with the perception that Ankara is gradually shifting from Kemalist self-containment to an offensive neo-Ottoman foreign policy.

While Erdogan's administration proceeds by grand theoretical announcements China does not explicitly vow to reconnect with a lost "strategic depth" and is not obsessed by the conceptualization of its foreign affairs. Subtle power is also the cultivation of ambiguity and vagueness which are too often poorly interpreted as mystery and obscurity.

And, in an era where technology forces the chancelleries to practice a diplomacy without secrets -- it is naive to assume that communication devices or computers are absolutely secured -- the value of intentional imprecision increases considerably.

In that sense, the attempt to define subtle power is almost self-contradictory, it is not a set of predetermined rules or procedures to follow mechanically but the art of creating a favorable context, it is not a self-proclaimed indispensability, superiority or grandeur but, in a constantly changing configuration the capacity to maintain centrality. The expression "Middle Country" certainly refers to a given and fixed geographic location but it can be also interpreted as a position gained by intelligent strategic moves in the dynamic complexity of the power game.

Instead of its complacent litanies on what it perceives as China's essential imperfections, the West should seriously focus on what it could learn from the nuances of Beijing's subtle power. To a certain extent, it is a relatively Sinicized West and a reasonably Westernized China and their constant interactions which could constitute for mankind an infinite source of synergies.

Being so deeply congenial with Chinese culture, subtle power carries the Chinese traditional emphasis on moderation and peace embodied in the character he or harmony, and as such it supports the idea that a major redistribution of power does not necessarily need to emerge from the tragedies of wars.

Arguably, the US misreading of the Chinese strategic intentions could be in the foreseeable future the world's major source of tensions. However, a dispassionate look at China's behavior reveals a legitimate and noble effort: while Beijing builds enough hard power to defend its more than 22,000 km of land boundaries shared with 14 countries, while it works to acquire the means to protect its energy, raw materials or food supply, the world's most populous nation is fundamentally engaged with the subtle power of non-confrontation, non-interference and restraint on the path of a peaceful renaissance.


David Gosset is director of the Euro-China Center for International and Business Relations at CEIBS, Shanghai and Beijing, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.