China vs. the West: the Great Battle of Powers

China and the West are engaged in a Soft Power vs Hard Power battle. This month’s victory for China has arguably been the most crucial in its battle against Western norms. China is revealing that the West, for all its statements to the contrary, is not willing to suffer material costs for humanitarian ideals.


Image courtesy of Pete Souza, ©2011, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Pete Souza, ©2011, some rights reserved.

Soft Power vs Hard Power

Joseph Nye argues that there are two distinguishable forms of power: Soft Power and Hard Power. Soft Power is defined as “a country’s ability to influence events through persuasion and attraction” with the aim that “its culture, values and institutions incite admiration and respect in other parts of the world.”[1] Hard Power is the use of economic or military coercion to enforce your will upon others. China’s campaign against the Dalai Lama is not only proving the power of the latter over the former, but is also exposing the West’s obsession with human rights as being of lesser importance to material interests.

Dalai Lama

The treatment of the 14th Dalai Lama is the most efficient example to show how the explosion in China’s Hard Power is gradually grinding the West’s Soft Power to dust. Since the 1990s, China’s increased economic and military power has scared nations away from officially meeting the Dalai Lama. In February 2014, President Obama, the world’s most powerful leader, chose to meet the Dalai Lama in private at the Map Room instead of the Oval Office, which is reserved for Heads of State. Just this month, the supposed humanitarian superpower of Norway decided to not meet with the Dalai Lama when he comes to visit the country in May. Norway’s denial to host a meeting with the 14th Dalai Lama in April 2014 is possibly one of the darkest turns in the Dalai Lama’s campaign for Tibetan autonomy, religious and cultural freedom. It might also be one of the final death blows that China is levelling on the influential power of Western norms.

The Dalai Lama has come to represent more than just the cause of an autonomous Tibet. He has come to represent the fight of an oppressed David against a dictatorial Goliath. He symbolizes the struggle of universal human rights against powerful authoritarian regimes. It is the Dalai Lama as a symbol that inspires China to punish any state that entertains supporting the man. China perceives the Dalai Lama as a traitor who has jumped into the arms of Western nations who will use him to criticise China in their efforts to undermine China’s legitimate rise to power. No longer does the Dalai Lama only represent religious freedom for Tibetans, he represents the fight against China’s human rights abuses.

The Dalai Lama Effect

China does not like to be humiliated or to have foreigners infringe upon their ‘sovereignty’. Thus in their effort to silence the Dalai Lama and attack anyone who harbours an enemy of the Chinese state they have resorted to economic punishment. In 2010 researchers at the University of Gottingen coined the term “the Dalai Lama Effect.” By analysing trade data of 159 nations from the years 1991-2008, they found that national exports to China would decrease by roughly 8% to 16% for two years after a nation held an official meeting with the Dalai Lama.[2] They also found that China wouldn’t let this last for too long however, and exports would return to normal levels on average two years after an official meeting took place. Sadly it seems that China’s strategy is successfully disciplining the world into avoiding meeting with the Tibetan leader. It is no surprise that developing nations like South Africa, that are so reliant on China, would not grant the Dalai Lama a visa for Nelson Mandel’s funeral. However, it turns out that even Western nations are letting compromising their ethical conscience for monetary gain.

Norway, the “Humanitarian Superpower”?

Norway is in a unique position among the Western nations, as it has suffered China’s wrath for several years now. After Liu Xiabao was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, China froze virtually all relations with Norway, and political dialogue has not been resumed since. Norway’s exports to China have plummeted since and relations have remained icy cold. The Chinese state demands an official apology from the Norwegian government, not recognising that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee is an independent body and institution. Norway has not changed its Ambassador to China since 2007 out of fear that the Chinese government will not approve a new ambassador.

Norway is hugely wealthy and is a self-declared nation of peace and human rights. It seeks to brand itself as a “humanitarian superpower.”[3] As the Norwegian State declares on its foreign affairs website “The promotion of human rights and democratic principles is at the heart of Norwegian foreign policy.”[4] If any nation should be immune from economic threats from authoritarian regimes to stand for their belief in human rights, Norway should be the prime candidate. Its economy has been largely spared of the negative ramifications of the 2008 financial crisis due to its roughly £520 000 000 000 (read billion) sovereign wealth fund. Norway owns approximately 1% of the world’s entire stocks. It is the world’s third largest natural gas exporter. Yet this economic prosperity has apparently not shielded Norway from China’s threats of continued political and economic isolation.
Norway has decided to bow to China’s threats who is opposed to any nation hosting an official meeting with His Holiness. Norway’s government stated in its justification that the resumption of normal relations with China is a primary goal and is superior in importance to hosting a meeting with the Dalai Lama. Although China’s aim is to prevent the Dalai Lama from entering Norway, this month’s Norwegian declaration will be seen as a huge victory in Beijing. Norway has proven that China’s strategy works; even rich Western nations will eventually succumb to the China’s will. Though they may claim that their support of democracy and human rights is of primary importance, it seems that political and economic ties with the Middle Kingdom is a prerequisite. This short-sighted decision will provide cannon fodder to those who claim that the West is greedy, deceitful and does not truly believe in human rights. Norway’s decision has weakened the legitimacy of the West’s normative arguments seemingly proving that might is indeed right.