Friday, 25 April 2014

Pew Research on China and the US: A Soft Power Dimension

To coincide with President Obama's trip to Asia, the Pew Research Center has released the results of its latest public opinion surveys undertaken in those countries he will visit (Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Malaysia). The questions were designed to not only ascertain not only the popularity of, but also the strength of feeling about ties with the US and China. Finally, the survey tried to measure the impact of current territorial disputes with China on public opinion.

The results will make for sombre reading in Beijing, and should be of major concern to the state agencies in China responsible for strategic communication and international engagement.

The first interpretation of the data is that the 'power' - the political dimension - in 'soft power' matters.  As I have argued elsewhere (All fluff and no substance), and as USC's Philip Seib has also noted (Putting a hard edge on soft power), we are in danger of losing sight of soft power as a strategic enabler. In many ways, the core disciplines of international relations and communications have been seduced by the idealism inherent in soft power so that it has become a fashionable catch-all label for an activity that all governments must 'do' otherwise they are out of step with the times. There is a danger that the term has become an 'empty signifier' (Hayden, 2012: 47; Critchley and Marchart, 2004). The production and reproduction of discourses about soft power may ultimately be more important and possess more strength than the original meaning. So the questions about soft power - its meaning and application - must be: Power to achieve what? Over whom? How do the intangible benefits of outreach (international broadcasting, for example, or student exchanges) translate into discrete tangibles that advance the political and strategic agenda of the source?

This is important for the China's public diplomacy cadres studying the results of the latest Pew research. Despite Beijing's apparent confidence in the belief that 'to know us is to love us', its soft power push in three out of four areas surveyed is having little impact, even though the Asia-Pacific remains a primary target of China's endeavours to sell itself as a peaceful and responsible regional power (Malaysia is the exception, and I will defer to my colleagues who know far more about Malaysia's international relations to provide a possible explanation for this). The number of respondents who said it is more important to have strong ties with China rather than the US is shockingly low, making the political meanings of the poll quite transparent (again, Malaysia was the exception). Clues for reason are found in the responses to the question: How big a problem are territorial disputes between China and your country? Given the on-going disagreements about sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the results are not that surprising. Politics matters; and actions - how a state behaves at home and abroad - will always speak louder than words. Presentation is only as good as the policy it is designed to sell.   


Hayden, C. (2012), The Rhetoric of Soft Power: Public Diplomacy in Global Contexts (Lanham, MD: Lexington)

Critchley, S. & O. Marchart (eds.) (2004), Laclau: A Critical Reader (London: Routledge)

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