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China’s Preference for Hard Power Is Creating Major Headaches for Beijing

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China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

China’s Preference for Hard Power Is Creating Major Headaches for Beijing

Taiwan’s election result points to a broader trend: China is failing to use soft power effectively, and paying the reputational price.

China’s Preference for Hard Power Is Creating Major Headaches for Beijing
Credit: Depositphotos

The Taiwanese presidential election on January 13, won by Vice President Lai Ching-te (or William Lai) of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was hardly welcomed by China. The Chinese government had actively opposed the DPP. It has been accused, not for the first time, of electoral interference in favor of its preferred candidates. 

After the election, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement, “Whatever changes take place in Taiwan, the basic fact that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China will not change.” The statement reiterated the One China principle and re-affirmed Beijing’s opposition to “‘Taiwan independence’ separatism.” Punctuating its position, Beijing condemned foreign leaders who extended congratulations to Lai, and welcomed Nauru into an official relationship as the Pacific island state severed ties with Taiwan just two days after the election.

While the response of the Chinese Foreign Ministry was expected and Nauru’s de-recognition of Taiwan not unexpected, the Taiwanese election points toward a larger problem with Chinese foreign policy over the past decade. Broadly speaking, there has been a shift away from a relatively sanguine view of China’s peaceful rise, where Beijing’s power and influence was perceived as a common good across the international community, to a more nuanced and cynical perception of Chinese objectives.

The first perception is firmly associated with the discourse regarding China’s peaceful rise and the idea of “responsible power” as exemplified by President Hu Jintao’s call in 2005 for “common security and prosperity” and a “harmonious world” at the plenary meeting of the United Nations Summit. From this perspective, China’s increased influence and material power would benefit the globe and provide a non-Western perspective and economic heft to tilt the international political economy more toward the Global South. But that image has fractured amid China’s increasing willingness to use its material power to pursue its own interests – to the detriment of both individual states and the international order. 

Much of this change in perception has occurred since the adoption of a more assertive “wolf warrior” foreign policy and diplomatic language, which has been materially and rhetorically committed to opposing liberal values and democratic institutions in favor of a more robust defense of Chinese values, China’s territorial claims, and the extension of Chinese material power. Concens deepened with the use of China’s trade and investment prominence to “punish” states, such as Australia and Lithuania, that pursue policies or hold viewpoints that China considers unacceptable. 

In some instances, this has generated a dangerous cycle of mutual recriminations as politicians in other states have focused on Beijing’s actions and rhetoric to sustain their own power based on insular nationalist tropes and appeals. As such, China has been more and more confronted by the United States, the European Union, United Kingdom, and other states across a range of areas. China has had border clashes with India and is the target of re-calibrations in the defense policies of Australia, Japan, and the Philippines. Still other states are openly attempting to lessen their dependence on Chinese trade and investment. 

This is not to say that Chinese foreign policy has been unsuccessful over the past decade. The Belt and Road Initiative, despite criticisms, has generated goodwill and has left a wide swathe of beneficial infrastructure while creating numerous opportunities across large areas of Africa and Southeast Asia. China has extended and deepened its presence and control over the South China Sea. Outside of the West, China has largely sidelined human rights concerns regarding Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong while supporting authoritarian regimes such as Myanmar.

Beijing has extended its presence into the Indian Ocean (through outreach to the Maldives and Sri Lanka) and the South Pacific (through a defense agreement with Solomon Islands). It has extended its influence in areas such as Latin America, the Sahel and the Pacific, enabling smaller states the opportunity to counterbalance the previous colonial powers, which have been able to maintain their sphere of influence over the areas. China is an indispensable player in addressing global problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss. 

In short, it has become a superpower, its actions and omissions to act impacting the international system in a variety of ways.   

Yet the costs and significant pushback from other states undermine the long-term viability of Chinese foreign policy objectives and instruments. Three recent policies have particularly set back China’s influence: Its full-throated extension of mainland authority into Hong Kong in the face of pro-democracy protests in 2019-20, its support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2021, and its weaponization of trade. 

First, China’s blunt assertion of control over Hong Kong undermined Chinese credibility in regards to treaty obligations and rule of law. It also significantly altered political, economic and social perceptions of the Taiwan situation both inside and outside the island. 

Second, China’s rhetorical support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a dramatic departure from Beijing’s traditional insistence on state sovereignty and “non-interference” as the underlying principles of its foreign policy. Chinese support of Russia magnifies and re-vivifies the former “sphere of influence” politics as an accepted method of international politics; Russia has made no attempt to hide its desire to regain its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe as a war objective. This conception of international order, with a diminished role for international law, leaves smaller states more at the mercy of larger states. As such, states across the Asia-Pacific (especially those with territorial disputes with China) have increasingly sought outside allies and armed might to counter perceived Chinese intentions, fueling a security dilemma and additional insecurity in the region. 

Third, China’s willingness to use its economic power to “punish” states has alarmed foreign governments. China implemented tariffs on a variety of Australian exports after Canberra called for a WHO investigation into the source of COVID-19. Beijing went further in the case of Lithuania, which opened a new Taiwanese representative office, not only banning exports from the country but threatening to ban products from third countries that sourced intermediate parts from Lithuania. These cases illustrated the risks some states might suffer amid large trade and investment asymmetries with China.   

Power and influence – both in terms of hard power, such as military or economic might, and soft power, such as cultural attractiveness – is exercised in many ways across the international system. The mistake that Chinese policymakers have made in the past decade is they have tended to rely too much on “hard” power as a tool to achieve their desired foreign policy objectives. Instead, China must embrace soft power approaches and cultural attractiveness if it is going to continue its peaceful rise. 

This has not been lost on Chinese policymakers. President Xi Jinping has embraced the historical narratives of the Chinese civilization, highlighting peaceful trade across the Silk Road and maritime Asia as well as shared colonial humiliations as a way to open a window of mutual interests with developing states. Yet, the notion of soft power must not simply be rhetorical. In the Asia-Pacific, the proffered narrative has too often resulted in Chinese policymakers substituting the realization of Beijing’s international objectives as a universal “pan-Asian” good – a tendency shared with other nations such as the United States – instead of acknowledging the cacophonous diversity and different interests found within and across each Asia-Pacific state. 

More importantly, the effective use of soft power must also include a willingness to compromise and re-articulate core interests in the face of opposition by other states or the international community. This use of soft power necessarily involves political choices. And these political choices, while difficult, are open to Chinese policymakers. Unfortunately, some policies and political positions, such as Taiwan unification or Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea have been promulgated and advertised with a high level of rhetorical content and commitment by the Chinese leadership. These types of policy commitments can create a “legitimacy trap” for policymakers and be more resistant to changes in material circumstances or compromise, as they tend to become bound up in the legitimacy of the regime or individual leader. This can privilege continued adherence to inappropriate and costly policies or political positions.

The Taiwanese election is an example of such a problem. Since the changes in Hong Kong, Taiwanese people have felt less and less attraction to China. This is hardly surprising, as Beijing insists on the same “One Country, Two Systems” formula used in Hong Kong as its overarching goal for Taiwan. At the same time, the DPP, as a governing party, has softened its independence rhetoric to embrace the “status quo.” 

Yet Chinese policymakers have been unable to adjust to these new changes, leaving them unable to harness the cultural affinities that exist between Taiwan and the mainland. Instead, Chinese leaders have doubled down on the rhetoric and policy frameworks that undermine any effective application of soft power or seek compromise. This has enflamed nationalism, both in China and across the region, and raises the potential that Chinese policymakers may be “trapped” by their own rhetoric into actions that may lead to violence. 

While one cannot doubt the intensity of Chinese feeling over Taiwan, in other parts of the world such as Northern Ireland, Sudan/South Sudan and the former Yugoslavia, the parties have put aside their emotions and made arrangements that over time can provide the possibility for better lives and new approaches to ethnic and political conflict. A more generous approach, and a more inclusive and less insular approach to foreign policy, would better serve Chinese and regional interests.