Chinese Soft Power in the Indian Ocean
17 Pages Posted: 5 Oct 2009
Date Written: August 20, 2009
For the past several years, Beijing has been attempting to “shape” the diplomatic and strategic environment in maritime Asia, projecting an image of itself as an innately trustworthy great power. As a part of this public relations campaign, Chinese leaders have retailed the story of Zheng He, the Ming Dynasty eunuch admiral who voyaged to destinations throughout the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean six centuries ago. They have touted the feats of Zheng He, who sojourned in maritime Asia without attempting military conquest, as a metaphor for China’s current peaceful ascent in the maritime domain. In doing so, Beijing hopes to convince key audiences in Southeast Asia and South Asia that it remains pacific in outlook - and thus can be counted on not to abuse the sea power it is amassing. An attractive vision of China, they hope, will avert the tendency of regional states to band together to balance Chinese power.
Until now, Chinese diplomats have had the luxury to tell their story how they wanted, since deployments of China’s naval forces beyond East Asia remained abstract. Beijing neither saw the need nor boasted the capacity to maintain strong forces far from Chinese shores. However, the headline-grabbing dispatch of two destroyers and a combat logistics ship to the Gulf of Aden on counterpiracy duty in late 2008 has put China squarely in the spotlight. By depicting itself as an inherently defensive power, China has set a high standard for its behavior at sea. Fellow Asian powers will hold Beijing to this lofty benchmark - measuring its actions against the storyline Chinese leaders have developed around Zheng He’s voyages.
Beijing’s antipiracy mission thus offers an ideal opportunity to test empirically the efficacy of Chinese soft power at sea. To this end, this paper explores the motives behind the Zheng He narrative and assesses the key messages that Chinese leaders are attempting to convey to Asian capitals. This study then examines the extent to which China’s unprecedented naval presence in the Indian Ocean has dovetailed with the Zheng He storyline and with the larger strategy of easing regional misgivings about Chinese maritime power. Finally, the paper analyzes how India, a target audience, is responding to China’s narrative, drawing several preliminary conclusions about the effectiveness and the prospects of Chinese soft power in the Indian Ocean.
Keywords: China, Indian Ocean, soft power, maritime strategy, Zheng He
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