Japan, China and Soft Power

October 1, 2013

Last week I blogged about one bilateral PD study and here’s another Utpal Vyas, Soft Power in Japan-China Relations: State, Sub-State and Non-State Relations.  The concern here is with the extent to which Japan has been able to build soft power in its dealings with China.

Vyas looks at the impact of different types of actors in building Japanese soft power, so his case studies focus on a governmental agency, The Japan Foundation, a subnational agency, Kobe City and a non-governmental agency, the Japan-China Friendship Association.  He starts from an assumption that the Japan Foundation would be hampered by its quasi-governmental status but concludes that it’s done quite a good job relative to its limited resources.  His second case deals with the sister cities relationship between Kobe and Tianjin.  This goes back to the 1970s and was the pioneer of such relations between Japan and China, these are both port cities and determined efforts have led to the development of numerous mutually beneficial links around trade, port development, urban issues as well as cultural ones.  These relations appear unaffected by conflicts between the two countries.  The JCFA dates back to the early days of the People’s Republic, it contained a mixture of ideological sympathisers and businesspeople who saw an opportunity.  It was treated with suspicion by the government because of its politics.  The history of the organization was marked by political developments, not least the splitting of the Japanese left into pro-Chinese and pro-Soviet factions.  Despite these ructions the organization was able to prosper after the end of the Cultural Revolution because of its good relations with the Chinese government and was well placed to build links between the two countries after Deng Xiaoping came to power.

Having got to the end though I’m left with a puzzle.  Despite all this work political relations between Japan and China are not good,    there is a high level of popular anti-Japanese sentiment in China and people in Japan seem disposed to move towards a stronger assertion of Japanese interests.  How do we explain this?  It could be suggested that relations would be worse in the absence of these activities or that given the size of China they simply haven’t been conducted on a sufficient scale.

What do we mean by soft power? The concept was originally developed to explain outcomes in international politics (ie continued US dominance despite relative decline in material resources) but was rather vague in the mechanisms that underpinned this effect.  By looking at the organizations at work in the Japan and China Vyas is filling in some of the micro foundations of the theory of soft power Vyas tends to assume that the activities he’s examining produce soft power but there’s not much evidence of soft power in the original sense of impact on policy.  These activities certainly have an effect on the people involved and those around them but getting them to adopt Japanese procedures or develop a taste for manga isn’t the same as influencing foreign policy.   Part of the answer in this case is the role of the Chinese government: it’s used the cases studied here to aid its agenda while making sure that it maintains control of the whole process.

I think that there’s something to be learned from the historians’ debate over cultural imperialism vs cultural transfer (eg Gienow-Hecht 2000).  The point here was that the adoption of foreign cultural practices was seen as imperialism this implied two assumptions  that the adoption was forcible and that it had a political effect.  The cultural transfer argument was that it wasn’t safe to make these assumptions people might adopt foreign cultural practices because they liked them or thought they were useful and they might not have any political effect. The danger is that the soft power argument is making the same mistake it’s assuming the political effect.

What we need is need is  better theory that specifies the circumstances where impact will occur and when it won’t.

Gienow-Hecht J (2000) Shame on US? Academics, Cultural Transfer, and the Cold War-A Critical Review, Diplomatic History, 24: 465–94.





One comment

  1. […] 2013, Part 5, October 28, 2013; “German Democracy Support in Middle East,” October 2, 2013;“Japan, China and Soft Power,” October 1, 2013; “Reading the 2013 Survey on UK Attitudes to International Priorities,” […]

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