In recent years, China rapid economic expansion has driven state development toward overseas engagement, with a primary focus on securing resources to sustain its economic growth and garnering influence to advance its geopolitical worldview. Consequently, China’s mix of economic development and soft power engagement in developing regions such as Africa has spurred fears that China’s rise will diminish US’s strategic influence by undercutting their role in economic development, governance, and diplomacy in that region. US’s insecurities about China’s soft power influence is further exacerbated by China’s opaqueness regarding its intentions as an emerging global actor as it continues to burgeon in military and economic might. These issues and their implications for the US are extensively debated in the field of international relations, specifically whether China’s soft power strategy is an offensive threat directed toward challenging US’s power status and geopolitical interests.
This paper will argue that while China is expanding soft power in Africa through exerting various economic, political, and cultural influences, its intentions are toward peaceful development and should not be misperceived as aggression against US interests. Furthermore, a careful examination of empirical data reveals that while China’s soft power is steadily growing in Africa, the magnitude of Chinas potential threat is oftentimes exaggerated. Ultimately, the US should not perceive China’s soft power rise in a zero-sum context, where one country’s rise is at the direct expense of another country’s security. Instead, the US should perceive China’s growth through a positive sum framework, acknowledging that China’s gains can be shared and ultimately contribute to a greater global good. Through increased US-China engagement on Africa’s development initiatives, China’s soft power growth can bring forth more stakeholder responsibility, transparency, and global cooperation in the international system.
The structure of this paper will begin with a broad definition of soft power and how China’s specific soft power tools falls within that theoretical framework. I will then broadly define what US constitutes as Chinese threats to its economic, cultural, military, and political interests. Subsequently, I will take a deeper examination of China’s soft power influence in Africa, taking into account specific case studies to assess how China’s soft power potentially destabilizes US’s cultural, economic, political security. To verify the validity of China’s projected threats, I will provide empirical data to assess the results. Finally, I will close with a proscription of how the US should effectively address China’s rise in soft power through a shift in policy perspective.
What is Soft Power
China’s global influence in the developing world has been energized by its source of soft power. Coined by IR scholar, Joseph Nye in 1990, soft power is broadly defined as the non-coercive ability to influence state actions through legitimate appeal and attraction, rather than the direct use of force or money (Nye, 167). A state’s inherent attractiveness to other countries is emboldened by the direct soft power appeal of its culture, the power of its political values, and the effectiveness of its foreign policy. When a state’s cultural and political factors have legitimacy, they gain the capacity to shape state behaviors and motivate actions (Nye, 167). Soft power is further derived from indirect sources such as a country’s military and economic strength. A powerful state with vast resources and well-run military gains admiration and respect from peripheral states. Similarly, a nation’s prosperity attracts other who want to model after its economic success and adopt similar institutions and policies (Nye, 168). Not only can a nation’s economic success attract states in the short run, but there is a “sticky”, long term component to soft power which