Monday, 2 January 2012

The Only Thing We Have To Fear... fear itself. President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered that message in 1932, at a time when the United States was at its lowest, suffering from the heavy blow caused by the 1929 Wall Street Stock Market Crash.

It was the time of the Great Depression, and the American pride was probably at its lowest. Having just been part of the winning side of the First World War, the economic woes of the 1930s pushed the Americans into isolationism, uncaring of the events that evolved in Europe and Asia; events that would later bring about the Second World War.

Fear can be contagious. Fear feeds off itself, capable of growing into gargantuan emotions surmountable by none. In international relations, fear often evolves from misunderstandings and misperceptions of one’s surrounding environments. Many times, we fear “another” or “the other”. And many times too, our fears breed conflict and war.

Therefore, in vying for influence through military and economic means, nations also pursue a less "hard" approach, hoping to dilute any fear growing among their neighbors. Much has already been written on this ever since Joseph Nye coined the term "soft power". But considering the breadth of the topic, as well as its various interpretations, I feel that no amount of analyses could suffice.

During the 17th Communist Party Congress in 2007, President Hu Jintao stated that "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will be accompanied by the thriving of Chinese culture". Thus, by strengthening its soft power tools – such as the media, arts and culture – China would not only secure itself as a more cohesive nation, but also make positive gains in winning the world's heart over.

Recognizing the need to balance the growth of its military and economic power, China has shown tremendous efforts to expand its soft power diplomacy. Might, money, and now China is also keen on winning the "minds" of the world, particularly its Asian neighbors. Indeed, China is a late-comer to this realm; however, it has made up for this by putting in generous amounts of funds into its soft power "tools".

As China’s soft power diplomacy grows, what ensued was obvious: more studies in the West about the implications of this supposed phenomenon on international relations (read: the West's interests). And in many occasions, these studies continue to take on the “China threat” line that we often find in analyses of China’s military or economic prowess.

Michael Barr's "Who's Afraid of China?: The Challenge of Chinese Soft Power" argues that no matter how China tries to "soften" its rise to power, most countries – particularly those in the West – are simply incapable of viewing China other than as a threat to today's world order. That no matter how China tries to make itself appear more "friendly", most could only identify a foe.

Having read countless newspaper clippings, journal articles, fictional stories, biographical accounts, and academic analyses on China’s rise to power, it's good to know that there are always new approaches to such analyses. Of course, studies of China’s soft power are abundant; numerous think-tanks in the United States have given their two-cents on this topic and suggested responses for the American Government.

However, there are certain things that make Barr’s analysis commendable. For starters, the analysis is not lengthy, yet packs enough punch. Providing some of the more recent accounts on China's soft power diplomacy, the book delivers its main points and arguments well within 150 pages, thus making it an easy read during a long flight out of or into Jakarta.

Barr draws an elaborate picture of China’s soft power growth: the expansion of state-owned CCTV and China Radio International (CRI) into foreign homes; the mushrooming of Confucius Centers, teaching standardized Mandarin all over the world; the budding appeal of the “tianxia” (all under heaven) perspective on international relations; and the growing influence of Chinese themes, actors, and directors in the global entertainment industry (music, art, and movies).

In painting this grand picture, Barr points out that China’s soft power development is mainly due to one factor: money. Unlike the past, today’s China can afford such luxuries in foreign policymaking. Indeed, there is greater political commitment by the political bigwigs to expand Chinese soft power. But at the end of the day, the realization of such commitments is made possible by the country’s burgeoning financial coffers.

There are at least two major approaches that I find interesting in Barr’s analysis.

First, rather than jumping the bandwagon and portraying the Chinese soft power development as something to be feared, Barr points out that such fear most likely comes from within us, and not from China per say. Our concerns related to the rise of China are often less about China itself, and more about our inability to deal with China's growth. When we express fear towards China, it's most likely that we are afraid of our own image. Because by measuring ourselves against China, we become realized of our own limitations in dealing with this awakened giant.

Therefore, our sentiments towards China’s rise to power would only change according to the level of confidence that each and one of us have related to our respective nation’s potentials. An American fearful of China is an American who is not confident of his/her country’s capacity. While an American comfortable with China’s rise to power is one who continues to appreciate the USA’s continued dominance in world affairs. And the same can be said of Indonesians.

Second, Barr frames his analysis of the development of Chinese soft power not only from a foreign policymaking perspective, but also from the view of Chinese nation-building. Indeed, the growth and projection of Chinese thinking, news, arts, and culture are aimed at enhancing China’s image abroad, as a benevolent great power capable of sharing and caring with the rest of the world. However, at the same time, such efforts are also aimed at consolidating the Chinese people’s view of themselves, of what it means to be Chinese, and to be part of this grand construct called the People’s Republic of China.

Therefore, as Barr’s analysis highlights, a study of China’s soft power reveals more than just an assessment of the growing Chinese influence in international relations. It points out the flaws in China’s present identity, and how Chinese soft power development may be targeted as much inward as it is outward. That maybe many of us are reading too much into this issue, drawing conclusions based on our own limitations. While our confidence erodes, China gains more confidence through consolidating its identity as a strong, cultured, and unified nation.

That our true fear may not be China, but (our own) fear itself.

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