China’s ‘Soft Power’, as Reflected by the ‘One Belt, One Road’ Project

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 10
Words: 2735
Reading time:
10 min
Study level: PhD


Nowadays, it became a commonplace practice among many political scientists in the West to refer to the notion of ‘soft power’ (as defined by Joseph Nye), as such that illustrates the validity of the idea that the very essence of the dynamics in the arena of international politics undergoes a qualitative transformation, in the sense of becoming increasingly ‘non-coercive’. After all, the mentioned notion implies that there is a direct positive correlation between the measure of a particular country’s geopolitical power, on one hand, and its ability to influence the minds of people in other parts of the world, on the other. As Nye (2004) pointed out, “A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it” (p. 5).

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Nevertheless, contrary to what Nye believed to be the case, the popularity of the notion in question does not quite endorse the Constructivist outlook on international politics, according to which the world’s most powerful nations no longer rely primarily on the ‘hard power’ (military/pressure-diplomatic) means of competing with each other for the room under the Sun. The main reason for this is that there are now some indications that point out the fact that, just as war is best discussed as the ‘continuation of diplomacy’ (von Clausewitz’s term), a country’s ‘soft power’ is best discussed as merely the continuation of its ‘hard power’. The integrity of Nye’s Constructivist conceptualization of ‘soft power’ is undermined even further by the fact that many of the so-called ‘authoritarian’ states (as seen in the West) seem to exercise such power just as aptly and efficiently, as it happened to be the case with their Western (‘democratic’) counterparts.

China stands out as the most illustrative example, in this regard. After all, the dramatic increase of this country’s economic and geopolitical influence, associated with the realities of a post-industrial living in today’s world, was aided rather substantially by the Chinese leaders’ talent in exercising ‘soft power’ – despite the term creator’s subtle belief that only democratic (Western) nations have what it takes to emanate ‘soft appeal’ on a global scale. The so-called ‘One Belt, One Road’ project or OBOR (concerned with establishing the properly maintained/well-protected trade infrastructure between China and Europe), in which China has begun to invest heavily since the year 2013, exemplifies the validity of his suggestion perfectly well. The reason for this is apparent – the project’s completion will result in nothing short of transforming China’s geopolitical status from that of a ‘regional power’ to a ‘global superpower’, in the full sense of this word (One Belt, One Road 2015). This simply could not be otherwise. Being in control of the fully-functioning OBOR project will allow China to gain access to many of the previously unreachable natural/human resources throughout Eurasia, to win client states, to ensure the accessibility of the EU market to the Chinese-made industrial goods, and to strengthen the ruling authority of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Nevertheless, despite the expansionist nature of this would-be development, the project’s officially formulated principles are explicitly non-coercive (soft), such as ‘respect for the sovereignty; ‘territorial integrity of the countries’; ‘non-aggression’; ‘non-interference in each other’s affairs’; ‘equality’; ‘mutual benefit’, and ‘peaceful coexistence’ (Dumitrescu 2015).

There are two ways to address the outlined inconsistency between the assumption that ‘soft power’ must be necessarily democratic/ethical (in the Constructivist sense of this word), on one hand, and the fact that despite being an ‘authoritarian’ country, China appears more than capable of using this type of power (as ‘One Belt, One Road’ shows), on the other. It is either we deem China to be an ‘exception to the rule’, in this respect, or we admit that the notion of ‘soft power’ is best assessed through the conceptual lenses of political Realism. That is, regardless of what happened to be the formal qualities of a particular country’s international stance/political ideology, the main motivation for its government to consider applying ‘soft power’ in the international arena of politics, is that it will help this country to reach the long-term objectives of economic proliferation, territorial expansion, and geopolitical dominance. In this study, I will aim to test the soundness of the second presupposition (as the most plausible one) while focusing on China’s OBOR, as such that demonstrates that the notion of ‘soft power’ is ideologically neutral and that it is essentially synonymous with the notion of ‘hegemony’, as Antonio Gramsci used to define it (Durst 2005). If proven discursively sound, the proposed hypothesis will deepen our understanding of the main ruling principles of international politics, and provide us with some new insights into the actual implications of the manner, in which China deploys its ‘soft power’ across the globe.

The main questions that I will seek to answer in this study are as follows:

  1. What is the main purpose that China’s ‘soft power’ serves? Is China’s practice of using ‘soft power’ fully consistent with Nye’s outlook on what the concerned notion stands for?
  2. In what way will the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project help China to strengthen its ‘soft power’?
  3. What should be deemed the main discursive implications of China’s current approach to using ‘soft power’?

Literature review

The fact that this study’s initial hypothesis indeed does make much sense can be shown, with respect to a number of the peer-reviewed articles, books, and web-based publications, the authors of which outline the foremost reasons for China to decide in favour of establishing OBOR and discuss the project’s anticipated geopolitical effects. According to Dumitrescu (2015), OBOR will consist of three continental ‘land bridges’ and one maritime trade route (The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Quanzhou-Venice), which are to guarantee the secure and cost-effective transportation of industrial products from China to Europe and the other way around.

Eurasion land bridges

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As of the beginning of 2015, the project’s budget was estimated to account for $40 billion. This emphasizes the geostrategic importance of OBOR for China. By being willing to invest so much money into the project, this country leaves only a few doubts as to the seriousness of its intention to apply a continuous effort into maintaining the political stability across the area (no ‘orange revolutions’). Moreover, the very fact that OBOR is concerned with the establishment of three independent ‘land bridges’, implies that China’s new project-enabled access to the EU market will not suffer a great deal of damage, even in cases when the flow of commercial goods through either of these bridges becomes obstructed or impossible, due to the rapid deterioration of the political/socio-economic situation in adjacent countries (Nidhi 2014).

This suggests that one of the main considerations that prompted China’s government to give ‘go ahead’ to OBOR, had to do with the Chinese leaders’ realisation that it is only a matter of time before their country will find itself in the state of some open/proxy military confrontation with its main geopolitical rivalry – the U.S. The above-stated helps to explain the proposed shipping lane for the Maritime Silk Road, as well. According to Swanström (2007), China needs an alternative maritime route for importing oil and natural gas from the Gulf, which would not be very vulnerable to the prospect of the U.S. and its allies declaring a sea blockade on China, just as it had happened many times in the late 19th century. Thus, there is indeed much rationale in believing that, contrary to how China strives to present it to the world, OBOR is far from being deemed a strictly economic/infrastructural project – on the most fundamental level, OBOR is so much more about strengthening China’s national security than about anything else (Nidhi 2014).

This particular insight is fully consistent with the idea, promoted by Palma (2015) in her article – ‘One Belt, One Road’ is meant to intensify the growing disagreement between the U.S. and the European Union, as to what should be the provisions of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which both parties are expected to sign in the near future. Whereas the signing of this agreement (which presupposes the substantial lowering of trade tariffs in Europe) by the EU countries may eventually result in the deindustrialisation of these countries’ economies, the EU’s would-be willingness to choose instead in favour of pursuing the policy of economic cooperation with China should yield the opposite effect. The reason for this is that, in exchange for a particular European country’s decision to take part in helping China to establish OBOR, the Chinese government promises to invest heavily into revitalising this country’s infrastructural/industrial sector. As of 2014, the overall amount of China’s investments in the EU has reached a staggering 14 billion Euros. In its turn, this implies that, along with helping to facilitate trade transactions between China and Europe, OBOR will serve the purpose of weakening America’s economic influence on the EU – hence, making it more likely for China to win in the ongoing competition with the U.S. for the European market of 500.000 million (Holyk 2011).

The fact that OBOR is so much more about allowing China to exercise ‘soft power’ than about merely enabling this country to transport its industrial goods to Europe can also be illustrated, in regards to the commonly overlooked aspect of China’s economic growth. As of 2016, the service sector of China’s economy is expected to begin contributing to the generation of GNP as much, as the country’s heavy industry currently does (Morarjee 2015). This, of course, should have caused the Chinese government to grow less enthusiastic about the idea of investing billions and billions of dollars in OBOR. Yet, we get to see something opposite – as time goes on, China pledges to provide even more financial incentives to the country-participants, while taking full advantage of being supported by such recently founded (and China-controlled) international monetary organisations as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) (Roach 2015). Thus, there is indeed a good reason to consider the initially proposed thesis fully plausible.


The initial hypothesis presupposes that the theoretical conceptualisations, as to the actual significance of how China goes about exercising its ‘soft power’, are bound to remain highly subjective, while reflecting the currently prevalent socio-cultural discourse in one way or another. In its turn, this calls for both: subjecting the hypothesis to qualitative inquiry, as the most suitable methodological approach for conducting the study, and taking into account the strongly defined phenomenological quality of the would-be obtained data (Creswell 2012). Consequently, this particular consideration implies that it will be quite inappropriate to select the cross-sectional or longitudinal design for such an inquiry. The reason for this is that the methodology of analysing the cross-sectional/longitudinal data does not contain many provisions for defining the effect of the participants’ close affiliation with a particular socio-political/ideological discourse on the essence of their continually transformed stance, in relation to the political issue of interest. The earlier mentioned explains my rationale for choosing in favour of the following design for the would-be undertaken study:

  1. Narrative (interpretative) analysis of the thematically relevant literature. While through this particular phase of the study, I expect to find some additional explicit and implicit evidence, as to the soundness of the idea that China’s ‘soft power’ is much better discussed within the conceptual framework of the Realist theory of international relations. When conducting this part of the study, I will also strive to identify the main motivations that have caused every individual author to adopt either the Constructivist or Realist outlook on the newly emerged phenomena of China’s ‘soft power’.
  2. Discourse (phenomenological) analysis of
  1. Responses to the open-ended questions, received from the selected interviewees (Guoshen Liu. (劉國深) Professor and Dean of Taiwan Research Institute, Fu Lin-chi (遲福林) Eleventh CPPCC National Committee members, Chairman of CIRD, and Yun-Han Chu (朱雲漢) Distinguished Research Fellow of Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica and Professor of Political Science at National Taiwan University);
  2. Public speeches, delivered by the representatives of China’s ruling elite (Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang) throughout the years 2015-2018;
  3. News releases and Policy Posted from ‘National development and reform commission’ Time range: from Feb 2015 to Feb 2018, 3-year period. The main objective of this part of the study is to identify the so-called ‘clusters of meaning’ in how each of the interviewees handled both questions, and to define the measure of the received responses’ discursive consistency with the initial hypothesis.
  1. Codification of the data (by SPSS), obtained through the study’s phases A and B, and subjecting it to the correlation analysis. This will allow us to gain a better understanding of what accounts for the independent and dependent variables, within the context of how political scientists (authors)/China’s politicians and the study’s actual participants (interviewees) form their opinions on the significance of China’s ‘soft power’.

In the aftermath of having completed these parts of the study, I will discuss the possible implications of the obtained findings, with respect to the science of international relations, in general, and the role of China in today’s world politics, in particular. I believe that the outlined design is better than any other adjusted to serve the task of ensuring the objective value of this research, as such that aims to pinpoint the previously unexplored aspects of the ‘Chinese miracle’ in making.

Proposed analyses

The format of the proposed research design is best defined as the ‘qualitative study with the elements of quantitative codification’. The logic behind this definition is that even though the study is solely concerned with analysing/interpreting the qualitative data, the deployment of SPSS for identifying some of this data’s discursive subtleties, presupposes the assignment of certain numerical values to what can be confirmed as the recurring ‘clusters of meaning’ within it. The main techniques that I intend to use in this research can be outlined as follows:

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A. Document analysis. As it was shown earlier, there are indeed some indications that China’s ‘soft power’, exemplified by OBOR, serves the purpose of turning this country into a new geopolitical ‘superpower’. To confirm the full soundness of this idea, I will conduct an in-depth analysis of the thematically relevant documents (scholarly articles, books, web-based materials), to explicate what can be deemed evidence of the hypothesis’s overall validity.

B. Semi-structured interviews. This technique will be used to elicit spatially extended responses to the open-ended questions from the selected interviewees, as the individuals recognised thoroughly qualified/competent to expound on the matters, related to the actual focus of this research. In its turn, the acquired data of relevance should empower the researcher rather substantially, within the context of how he or she will go about interpreting the document analysis-based insights into the studied phenomena.

C. Correlation analysis (SPSS-backed). The concerned technique will be deployed as the mean of identifying the patterns of discursive/spatial interdependency between the data, obtained through phases A and B of the proposed study. In the aftermath of this phase’s completion, I should be able to gain a better understanding of the effects of the currently predominant socio-political discourses in the West and China/Taiwan on people’s perception of OBOR/China’s ‘soft power’.

Proposed timeframe

The study’s research timetable is as follows:

  • First academic year: Collecting and studying OBOR documentation and relevant source material. Following the developments, concerned with the continual expansion of China’s ‘soft power’ and with the process of this world becoming increasingly ‘multipolar’, in the political sense of this word. Assessing the significance of OBOR, in relation to what will account for the geopolitical situation on the planet through the year 2016.
  • Second academic year: Six months on a field study in Taiwan to collect and study documents and information on Taiwan’s current diplomatic strategy, and on how the rise of China’s ‘soft power’ affects the relationship between both countries. Interviewing Yun-Han Chu and Guoshen Liu. Six months on a field study in China. Visiting agencies and relevant institutes (e.g. China Institute for Reform and Development (CIRD)). Identifying the semiotic patterns in how China’s mainstream Media cover the OBOR-related developments. Interviewing Fu Lin Chi. Setting a schedule for writing the thesis.
  • Third academic year: Double-checking the integrity of the obtained data. Writing the thesis while remaining thoroughly observant of the ongoing progress with the establishment of OBOR. Preparing for the viva, after having submitted the thesis.


Creswell J 2012. Qualitative inquiry and research design: choosing among five approaches, SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks.

Dumitrescu, G 2015, ‘Central and Eastern European countries focus on the Silk Road economic belt’, Global Economic Observer, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 144-153.

Durst, D 2005, ‘Hegel’s conception of the ethical and Gramsci’s notion of hegemony’, Contemporary Political Theory, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 175-191.

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Holyk, G 2011, ‘Paper tiger? Chinese soft power in East Asia”, Political Science Quarterly, vol. 126, no. 2, pp. 223-254.

Nidhi, S 2014, ‘Geopolitics and transport: China’s strategy for resource access in Central Asia’, The Journal of Central Asian Studies, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 81-99.

Nye, J 2004. Soft power: the means to success in world politics, New York, Public Affairs.

One Belt, One Road could be China’s best soft power project 2015, Web.

Palma, S 2015, ‘IMF world bank: China trade – Asia’s new silk road – a smooth journey for the New Silk Road?’, The Banker, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 15-27.

Roach, S 2015, AIIB’s founding members, led by China, could develop new standards for global governance, Web.

Shambaugh, D. 2015, ‘China’s soft-power push’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 94, no. 4, pp. 99-107.