China’s “Subtle Power”

Posted on September 20, 2011


Joseph Nye’s notion of “soft power” as  a complement to military “hard power”  has brought confidence to American strategists in their ability to attract and influence the best intelligences of the world.

Now, after a decade of focusing in the “war on terror” and its disastrous economic and social showing, it’s time to take notice of the achievements of China in those fields previously thought as unreachable to her.

Not just China’s infrastructure as well as defense facilities have been improving at an accelerated path, but a net of Confucius Institutes around the world provides the bridges to her increasing influence in the global cultural field as well.

But there is something else. According to this essay by David Gosset published in Asia Times, China’s strategists rest on a “subtle power”, less visible and easy to define, but effective nonetheless.

Less spectacular than hard power, more intangible than soft power, subtle power aims to shape a context which maximizes the effectiveness of the two traditional dimensions of power. While hard power acts directly – including by force – to impose itself and soft power attracts and co-opts, subtle power sets the environment in which hard and soft power can produce optimal effects…

This should not be interpreted as a refusal to take a clear position on any singular question, but should be understood as the prudence to carefully consider how actions on one particular issue might affect the entire equilibrium of the system. While hard and soft power analyze and target the almost endless individual components of the global power game, subtle power apprehends synthetically their interactions.

The essay goes on describing extensively the five core aspects in which this “subtle power” may be experimented in the field. Acknowledging the tensions this strategy may bring to the future (mainly because of a wrong interpretation of its intentions), the author seems rather confident on its final success.

I’m far from an expert in Geopolitics or in Chinese culture. But, as I see the way taken to achieve fast growing by the Chinese elite as one that indulges in the American, rather than European, model of Capitalism (with sheer exploitation of workers, lack of social protection and waste of resources by few riches and a closed political class) I keep my doubts in their ability to avoid the increasing social tensions looming ahead.

In any case, I can’t see this rude and undemocratic model of society as very much “subtle” towards its own people; and certainly not one I feel too eager to see as a successful one.