Is China a “Soft” Naval Power?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 17

China created a stir late last year when it announced that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would commence policing the Gulf of Aden for Somali pirates. Two PLAN destroyers and a combat logistics ship arrived on station off the Horn of Africa this past January. By most accounts, Chinese commanders have coordinated their efforts smoothly with other antipiracy contingents, notably the U.S.-led Task Force 151, the European Union’s Operation Atlanta, and individual detachments dispatched by the likes of India and Russia. Nevertheless, skeptics saw ulterior motives at work in the Chinese expedition. China is finding that controversy follows great-power naval actions.
Chinese spokesmen cataloged various reasons for the extended Indian Ocean deployment. Senior Colonel Ma Luping, director of the Navy Operations Department in the PLAN General Staff Headquarters Operations Department, told reporters that the mission’s main goal was to protect Chinese (and Taiwanese) merchant ships and crews, as well as ships carrying supplies to Africa on behalf of the U.N. World Food Program. Xiao Xinnian, the PLAN deputy chief of staff, said the cruise would allow China to showcase its "positive attitude in fulfilling its international obligations," burnish its "image as a responsible power" (fu zeren de daguo xingxiang), and demonstrate the PLA’s capacity to enhance "world stability and peace" while "handling multiple security threats and fulfilling diverse military tasks" (Xinhua News Agency, December 23, 2008).

Beijing means to prove that it is a reliable defender of the global maritime order by tangible deeds. For some time Chinese strategists have debated the part that "non-war military operations" (fei zhanzheng junshi xingdong) can play in coping with nontraditional security threats like piracy. Analysts contend that combating such challenges will not only fulfill China’s responsibilities as a rising great power, but also help it accrue "soft power" over time, enhancing its attractiveness vis-à-vis fellow Asian nations [1].

Beijing was stung by its inability to contribute to tsunami relief in 2004-2005, for instance, and set out to correct the naval shortcomings exposed during the aid effort. Procuring transport aircraft, landing vessels, and a hospital ship has bolstered the PLAN’s capacity for this high-profile non-war military operation (Washington Times, January 26; Jiefangjun Bao [Liberation Army Daily], June 4, 2008). China’s soft-power strategy seems based on the premise that a nation can store up international goodwill by supplying "international public goods" like maritime security, which benefit all nations with a stake in the international order.

PLAN patrolling the Gulf of Aden, which will also buttress China’s ability to project power along the African seaboard and prosecute high-seas combat operations, is mentioned sotto voce—if at all—by the Chinese leadership. Portraying China as an inherently benevolent sea power—a power that Asians need not fear as it constructs a great navy—is central to Chinese maritime diplomacy. Yet as with all narratives, the reality is subjective and more complex. Good diplomacy is seldom good history.

The "Inevitable Outcome" of Chinese Maritime History

Counter-piracy is the archetype of an international public good. Ships remain the most economical way to transport bulk goods. On the order of 90 percent of world trade (by volume) travels aboard ship. Freedom of the seas, suppression of piracy and terrorism, and regional peace, consequently, are increasingly essential to the "good order at sea" on which globalization relies [2]. The PLAN leadership recently embraced good order at sea as one of the Navy’s core missions. Admiral Su Shiliang, the PLAN chief of staff, penned an article in the official Navy newspaper, Renmin Haijun (People’s Navy), that ordered his service to "strengthen preparations for maritime non-war military operations in a targeted fashion" while further honing its capacity to fight and win conventional battles at sea (Renmin Haijun, June 6).

Influential Chinese officials and scholars are increasingly thinking in terms of soft power as a way to augment China’s comprehensive national power. President Hu Jintao told the 17th Party Congress, "Culture has become a more and more important source of national cohesion and creativity and a factor of growing significance in the competition in overall national strength" [3]. Fudan University scholar Shen Dingli contends, "China’s ‘harmonious diplomacy’ has been well received by countries in the region," even as "U.S. influence in Asia has been diminishing." Accordingly, President Barack Obama is attempting "to remold the image of the United States in the region with soft power and smart power," reinvigorate relations with Asian nations, and "tactfully counter the impact of rising big powers in the region" (Phoenix TV  [Hong Kong], July 23).

As Shen observes, China too can tap major reserves of soft power. Chinese leaders have invoked the Southeast and South Asian voyages of the Ming Dynasty admiral, Zheng He, with increasing frequency to justify Beijing’s claims that China’s rise poses no threat. Tales of the Ming "treasure fleet," in effect the first foreign squadron ever forward-deployed to the Indian Ocean, appear to act as a proxy for China’s conduct at sea today. The rationale goes like this: dynastic China refrained from conquest even when it possessed a big navy. Thus, declares Chinese vice minister for communication Xu Zuyuan, Zheng He’s journeys to the Indian Ocean prove that "a peaceful emergence is the inevitable outcome of the development of Chinese history" (Xinhua News Agency, July 7, 2004) (authors’ emphasis). China’s peaceful rise, that is, is not only a matter of policy but a veritable law of history—or so Beijing would have target audiences believe.

Maritime security is interlaced with Chinese soft power. Speaking at Cambridge University in February 2009, Premier Wen Jiabao conjured up Zheng He’s "peaceful" missions to convey Beijing’s deeply embedded aversion to power politics and military dominion. "The idea that a strong country must be a hegemon does not sit well with China," proclaimed Wen. "Hegemonism is at odds with our cultural tradition, and it runs counter to the wishes of the Chinese people" [9]. This was a startling claim, given that the tributary system Zheng rejuvenated had everything to do with power politics. Wen’s diplomacy was apt, his history shaky.

Similarly, while celebrating the 60th anniversary of the PLAN’s founding, PLAN commander Admiral Wu Shengli drew a straight line from Zheng He to contemporary Chinese maritime strategy.  That the "world’s strongest fleet [the Ming navy] at the time … did not sign any unequal treaty, did not expand claims to any territory, and did not bring back even one slave," declared Wu before 29 naval delegations, proved that "the Chinese people are active practitioners of the harmonious ocean worldview"—to this day (Renmin Haijun, April 22).

Whether or not Asian audiences accept the Chinese version of history will determine the efficacy of China’s naval soft power. Governments cannot deploy soft power the way they dispatch army brigades or impose economic sanctions. According to its proponents, however, soft power lubricates the diplomatic machinery, helping leading powers ease suspicions about their motives and gather support for initiatives they deem worthy of pursuit. If so, Chinese soft-power overtures could pay off handsomely.

Setting the Bar High

Despite his enthusiasm for soft power, Harvard scholar Joseph Nye warns that the kinder, gentler approach has pitfalls if taken to excess. Public goods can become an excuse for meddlesome policies, he says, while "sometimes things that look good in our eyes may look bad in the eyes of others" [4]. Or a nation’s diplomacy can become too soft. For instance, India abounds in cultural appeal, and indeed, the late Sinologist Lucian Pye maintained that China "has come in a poor second to the Indian culture in attracting other peoples." Yet, "India is now regarded as a soft state," laments former Indian national security adviser Brajesh Mishra, because its physical might lags behind its power of attraction (India Today, July 23).

In portraying itself as a categorically benign nation, China has set itself an almost unreachable standard. If its behavior falls short of the Zheng He standard, it will be held to account. For instance, historians depict Zheng’s voyages as more than a gesture of goodwill. The size, sophistication, and combat power of the Ming fleet, declared the late Edward Dreyer, were deliberately calculated to overawe audiences in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean—to the extent that using force was unnecessary to impose Chinese emperors’ political will [5].

If the Zheng He voyages were in fact an exercise in power projection, it would help explain why some Asian observers read dark meaning into the PLAN counter-piracy deployment rather than accepting it as the act of a benign China. The PLAN has acquitted itself well off Somalia, rendering useful service from a public-goods perspective. Yet at the same time, the Navy has shown it is no longer a coastal defense force, short on the capacity to replenish fuel, arms, and stores at sea or relieve deployed forces on station. It has been experimenting with a more ambitious fleet.

That fleet is now making its debut. This is not lost on wary Indian commentators, who depict counter-piracy as China’s first step onto a slippery slope toward a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Many in New Delhi appear utterly convinced that Beijing intends to militarize its "string of pearls," or network of basing agreements with South Asian states. One well-known analyst sketches a Sino-Indian "rivalry arc" all the way from Japan, along the first island chain, and through the Indian Ocean. Not so coincidentally, the arc’s western terminus lies off of Somalia [6].

For India, which fancies itself South Asia’s foremost power, signs of Chinese naval skill and capability portend future trouble—trouble that might require India not only to fortify its defenses in the Indian Ocean but also to project power into the Pacific, delivering a riposte to Chinese deployments near the subcontinent. It is no accident that this year’s annual Malabar exercise will take place not off India’s Malabar coast but off the coasts of Japan and Okinawa, bringing together the Indian, U.S., and Japanese fleets. Nor is skepticism confined to the Indians. The efficacy of China’s charm offensive in the South China Sea remains an open question.

Lingering Questions

Three issues associated with soft power deserve close scrutiny. Chinese counter-piracy provides a test case for this approach to diplomacy. First, to what extent does soft power yield hard results? Soft-power advocates appear to assume nations will set aside their interests if provided enough public goods or if a nation boasting sufficient power of attraction asks them to do so.

That is doubtful. Beijing may well find that fellow Asian leaders respond politely to their Zheng He narrative yet still abstain from Chinese-led ventures. Perhaps soft power eases qualms about a nation’s actions—a useful thing in itself from China’s standpoint—but cannot summon forth positive action. Standing by passively while big powers do something is easy; expending lives and treasure on another’s behalf can be both hard and politically hazardous.

Second, is any nation’s appeal universal? Council on Foreign Relations scholar Walter Russell Mead says no, pointing out that not all people feel the tug even of America’s open, liberal society. Evidence emerging in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea supports Mead’s claim. China’s "smiling diplomacy" seems destined to meet with some combination of enthusiasm, indifference, and—as the Indian case shows—disbelief. How Beijing conducts itself over time will determine whether it succeeds.

Third, how can a nation sustain its soft power once it begins to use hard power? It is relatively simple to sustain an attractive image when that image remains an abstraction, pure of messy realities. Beijing can tell its story however it wants. Yet as it starts deploying naval power in new theaters, China’s beneficent image will be tested against empirical evidence. What appeals to one foreign audience may not appeal to another, and Chinese soft power may decay as Beijing acts in its own interests.

China’s admittedly attractive civilization, then, provides no guarantee of diplomatic and military success. If Beijing—or any other government—sees soft power as a talisman to brandish in the face of stubborn challenges, its hopes are apt to be frustrated.


1. Jonathan Holslag, "Embracing Chinese Global Security Ambitions," Washington Quarterly 32, no. 3 (July 2009): p. 109; Joel Wuthnow, "The Concept of Soft Power in China’s Strategic Discourse," Issues & Studies 44, no. 2 (June 2008): pp. 1-28.
2. Joseph S. Nye Jr., "The American National Interest and Global Public Goods," International Affairs 78, no. 2 (2002): p. 239.
3. Wen Jiabao, "See China in the Light of Her Development," Speech at Cambridge University, United Kingdom, February 2, 2009, Foreign Ministry Website,
4. Nye Jr., "The American National Interest and Global Public Goods," p. 239.
5. Edward L. Dreyer, Zheng He: China and the Oceans in the Early Ming Dynasty, 1405-1433 (Old Tappan, N.J.: Pearson Longman, 2006), p. xii.
6. Gurpreet Khurana, "China-India Defense Rivalry," Indian Defense Review 23, no. 4 (July-September 2009),