Soft Power Battlegrounds: China and Japan's Strategies of Attraction and Influence in Southeast Asia


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
  • Douglas B. Fuller (Supervisor)
  • Sean Kenji STARRS (External person) (External Co-Supervisor)
Award date7 Mar 2022


Soft power has now been debated for more than three decades, managing to reach audiences well beyond academia. The central idea behind it is that there is more to international relations than carrots and sticks, referring to economic and military power. Yet the term is often downplayed by some scholars due to the difficulties in detecting its “fuzzy” mechanisms, and this has led to still-unresolved measurement and assessment issues. These critiques will be addressed in this thesis by developing a methodological framework to assess soft power dynamics of attraction and influence in circumscribed environments. The main purpose of this study is to contribute to the debate on how soft power resources and policies convert into outcomes through the observation of the efforts of China and Japan in Southeast Asia.

China has been investing heavily in its “charm offensive” and Japan has been labeled a “soft power superpower.” Yet there are lingering doubts regarding their power conversion capabilities. China and Japan are trying to gather sociocultural, political, and economic resources as enabling factors to policy implementation aimed at closer collaboration and improved relations with third parties. A broader understanding of soft power beyond a narrow cultural perspective–the one commonly found in the literature–is expected to shed some light on how these and more countries compete for influence abroad through a wider set of attractive national features and the strategies to take advantage of them. Soft power dynamics of attraction and influence–intended as the potential and the actual ability to result in outcomes–can be better understood when expanding Nye’s original concept to include certain economic interactions that are still based on attraction, not inducement. China and Japan’s conduct across Southeast Asia is a case in point of how soft power strategies are closely intertwined with economic ones, such as through aid, FDI, scholarships, and traineeships. Following the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative and the response to it, this study also aims to highlight the growing relevance of connectivity for soft power dynamics, which comprises multiple dimensions such as physical and digital infrastructure, and people-to-people interaction.

The first part of this thesis covers soft power’s conceptual, theoretical, and methodological considerations from which to build an operational framework. The second part examines China and Japan’s understanding of soft power while outlining their main intents, sources of attraction, and tools through an historical analysis of their official policies in action. The third part investigates the transmission process and how the respective efforts are being received by the target audiences in selected soft power battlegrounds in the region, with Thailand as the main case study. In-depth interviews, surveys, polls, and economic data are used to map the evolution of China and Japan’s conduct, image, and reputation. The final step is to merge and juxtapose the findings while trying to identify trends and patterns of attraction and influence, and how successful they are.

In the attempt to tackle soft power’s alleged fuzziness and to find some common ground between the term’s supporters and skeptics, the significance of this research lies in developing a framework to assess soft power strategies and to evaluate what works under what conditions while also further exploring the link between soft power and economic resources and outcomes. This is expected to address at least part of the criticism that sees soft power as an unmeasurable concept with limited analytical and practical value.

This study shows that China appears to have embraced a riskier “all-out” approach that builds upon its growing soft power assets. Beijing’s strategies may be paying off in terms of overall influence, but the attractive side is still heavily reliant on its economic prowess, hence not as soft, potentially unstable, and prone to arousing skepticism. Japan, instead, favors a more targeted and “stealth” approach, with less fanfare, but not as narrowly cultural as some might imagine. Tokyo’s strategies draw upon its long-term experience in Southeast Asia, which seems to be aimed at maintaining its presence while keeping vigil for whenever any promising opportunity arises, often following its competitor’s misstep. In brief, Japan is certainly not going to withdraw nor give up, but its “comfortable stagnation” and safe playing are likely unable to stop China’s growth and relative gains. However, if the latter’s approach does not soften in the near future, Southeast Asian countries are expected to double down on their quest for alternatives, especially to limit overdependence, and Japan will be ready.

    Research areas

  • China, Japan, Soft Power, Southeast Asia, Thailand