Confucius Institutes and Chinese Soft Power in Southeast Asia

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By Timothy Hamlin – Increased Chinese involvement in Southeast Asia has been viewed by many as aggressive and deliberately detrimental to US interests.  Some fear the Chinese are displacing American influence with traditional allies, but this might be a misreading of China’s intentions.  It is more appropriate to interpret Chinese actions in Southeast Asia as traditional great power behavior.

The Chinese government has recently undertaken a large campaign to support and develop Chinese language instruction abroad.  The establishment of over 100 Confucius Institutes around the globe is the most auspicious display of this effort.  This push to spread use and understanding of the Chinese language is viewed by many in the West as one indication of a more fundamental challenge to American influence in Southeast Asia.  Overwhelmingly however, the institutes are located in the highly developed states of North America and Europe, with relatively few in the region (17 total, 15 of which are in Thailand).

There is little doubt that China views this effort as part of its global economic expansion and a means by which to gain recognition of its rising power status.  Many students in the West view Chinese language skills as central to future business opportunities, and as a necessary skill in today’s global marketplace.  From this perspective Chinese actions can be viewed as seeking to promote its own commercial interests.  

The Confucius Institutes may be evidence that the Chinese Communist Party understands the importance of public opinion in many states, and is best viewed as part of an international marketing campaign predominantly aimed at the West.  To the extent that these efforts are aimed at Southeast Asia, it would appear that the message is directed at elite segments of domestic populations and Chinese diaspora communities.

China’s decision to invest more in soft power initiatives may partially be a response to an opening created by what some call the “militarization” of US foreign policy in the past decade and corresponding decline in soft power mechanisms.  Prior to September 11, observers had commented on the diplomatic role that had been assumed by the regional military commands, especially CENTCOM and PACOM.

It would seem counterintuitive, but US funding of many soft power institutions, such as Voice of America, briefly declined after the 9-11 attacks.  In addition, American actions in the conduct of the War on Terror, such as GuantanamoBay and Abu Ghraib, have undercut the US soft power ability to claim moral superiority in the struggle against Islamic radicalism and terrorism.  With US attention focused on the Middle East, China’s neighbors have experienced decreased American involvement.

China has faced frequent criticism over its business dealings with pariah states, notably Sudan and Burma, and is accused by many of pursuing business opportunities at the expense of humanitarian concerns.  China’s growth requires vast natural resources and opportunities to meet demand have been found in states rejected by most Western governments.  Though they often provide financial resources for infrastructure development, the frequent use of Chinese companies and laborers is a source of local resentment.

By increasing cultural understanding, China hopes to curtail the ease with which it is labeled a predatory outsider.  This is inherent in the concept of soft power.  Promoting the “good” parts of Chinese culture and history softens the blow of realpolitik decisions.  To use the metaphor suggested by Randall Peerenboom, it is an effort to downplay the image of China as a fire breathing dragon, and promote that of China as a cute, cuddly panda.[1]

It is more constructive to view China’s soft power expansion as a logical decision based upon global trends.  China is not usurping American influence for its own sake, but capitalizing upon opportunities for economic growth.  While China certainly benefits from eroding US influence, the promotion of Chinese language abroad is more of a public relations campaign aimed at countering the daily stream of criticism it is subject to.  Domestically, the Chinese Communist Party promotes economic growth in lieu of political freedom.  Similarly it would like the world to focus more on its rich cultural history rather than its environmental and human rights records.

The degree to which Southeast Asian states engage China is best considered as part of a “hedging” strategy.[2]  Regional economic frameworks reliant upon assembly chains that traverse national boundaries demand good relations.  The historical context of the region promotes caution however.  Therefore military and diplomatic ties between Southeast Asia and the US remain relevant, even if currently diminished due to American distraction.  There is considerable danger in viewing influence in zero-sum terms.


[1] Peerenboom, Randall, “The Fire Breathing Dragon and the Cute, Cuddly Panda: The Implication of China’s Rise for Developing Countries, Human Rights, and Geopolitical Stability,” Chicago Journal of International Law 7 no. 1 (Summer 2006), 17.
[2] Robert G. Sutter, “China’s Rise: Implications for US Leadership in Asia,” East-West Center, Washington, DC (2006).


photo credit:  Matthew Bradley,

Timothy Hamlin is an intern with the Asian Political Economy project at the Stimson Center.  

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