China’s ‘Soft Power’ in Central Asia Both More and Less than It Appears

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 14

Confucius Institute at Kazakh National University (Source: China in Central Asia)

From one perspective, China has enormous “soft power” in Central Asia, the ability, as Joseph Nye defined it (Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, New York, 1990), “to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion.” It can and does present itself in the region as a non-European state without an imperial tradition—in contrast to the Russian Federation and the West. Moreover, it is capably presenting itself both as a counterweight to the influence of those countries in the region and as a rising power interested in promoting trade and development across Central Asia. Consequently, many young people in Central Asian countries want to hitch their fate to China rather than to anyone else, even though their elders retain from Soviet times a view of China as a threat to the region.

But from another viewpoint, China has far less “soft power” in this region than one might expect, the result of China’s own traditions and of the authoritarian nature of most of the governments in Central Asia. For centuries, China has based its approach to the outside world on state-to-state relations—that is, on using its own official institutions to influence the official institutions of other countries. It is only beginning to engage in anything like the people-to-people diplomacy that most analysts conflate with soft power, although its Confucian language and cultural centers in the West and now in Central Asia are playing a growing role.

Central Asian governments welcome China’s state-to-state approach because most of them view people-to-people efforts less as a means to promote cultural understanding and a common approach to key issues than as a tactic others are seeking to use to change the nature of their political systems or even to overthrow the existing regimes. Consequently, fearful of losing its broader “soft power” influence based on geographic propinquity, economic advantage and Asian identity, Beijing has been slow to develop the people-to-people initiatives that other countries, including Russia, European Union member states and the United States, have developed more widely (Central Asian Analytical Network, January 22).

But that is beginning to change: Beijing is doing more in this field, and the trend itself is now attracting its own researchers. Recently, one of the leading Kazakhstani experts on this subject, Gaukhar Nursha, has provided a detailed discussion on China’s “soft power” in Central Asia, detailing both its achievements and its limitations (Central Asian Analytical Network, January 22).

In an interview with Daniyar Koznazarov, Nursha noted that China, like Russia, is a relative newcomer to the use of soft power and thus is coming from behind. But, she continues, Beijing has concluded that its interests, especially in Central Asia, require that it develop popular support in that region for China in general and China’s goals in particular. A major reason for that, Nursha said, is that Sinophobia remains strong among the elites in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries (see EDM, January 8), a survival of the Soviet past but one that means some political figures are always willing to play “’the China card’” to win support for their own agendas. Coping with that reality presents a real challenge for Beijing and those Chinese officials who want to use “soft power” in the region as opposed to those who continue to argue for the traditional state-to-state approach of Chinese foreign policy (Central Asian Analytical Network, January 22).

At the same time, the Kazakhstani scholar pointed out that those pushing for a soft power approach, perhaps especially in neighboring Central Asia, are being driven by domestic concerns. Many Chinese fear that the speed of change in their country is destroying their traditional culture; thus, some in Beijing are all too happy to point to the number of people in other countries who are learning Chinese or studying China as evidence that there is no real danger of that happening.

But in promoting people-to-people programs in Central Asia, China faces a number of obstacles besides the opposition of host governments. On the one hand, learning Chinese is difficult, and few Central Asians are prepared to stay the course to achieve fluency. And on the other hand, many of the Chinese teachers in the Confucius Centers Beijing has created—there are now five in Kazakhstan alone—communicate what many Kazakhs suspect anyway: They are less important for China than China wants to be for them. Both of these elements drive people away rather than win them over, as soft power is supposed to do.

“Is China [nonetheless] attractive” to Central Asians? “Yes,” Nursha asserted; but this is not “the soft power” that Nye and others talk about in any pure sense, because Chinese institutions in Central Asia are not independent of the state, as people-to-people links are supposed to be. Instead, they are controlled by two states, China and the host government. But what that really means, she suggested, is that the concept of soft power needs to be expanded. After all, Nusha argued, China is showing an ability to change popular attitudes by such actions and even to challenge Western and Russian “soft power” efforts there as well as to open doors for other states to do the same thing.