How Do South Korean People View the US and Chinese National Influence?: Is Soft Power Zero-Sum?
Asian Journal for Public Opinion Research. 2017. November, 5(1): 15-40
This paper addresses the zero-sum of soft power against the backdrop of the rise of China and the relative “decline” of America. It attempts to find out that whether the “decline” of America’s soft power is caused by the rise of China’s soft power, and whether China’s rise could guarantee with certainty the growth of soft power. In light of the particularity of South Korea, that is, its economy relies on China and its security relies on the US, this paper chooses South Korea as the entry point for the study. Based on the Pew data from a South Korean opinion poll, this paper conducts bivariate correlation and binary logistic regression respectively, to explore the existence of zero-sum “competitions” between China’s and America’s soft power.
soft power; zero-sum; China and America; South Korea; opinion poll; bivariate correlation and binary logistic regression
IntroductionThe importance of soft power, as opposed to other sources of power, in international politics is increasing in parallel with the rapid globalization of the world economy and the revolution in the field of information technology. Against the background of globalization and digitalization, hard power, such as military and economic power, is not sufficient for projecting national power abroad. Instead, “soft” sources of power, including culture, political ideology, and diplomacy, are increasingly playing essential roles in building national images and promoting normative power ( Nye & Wang, 2009 ; Breslin, 2011 ). As the most important emerging new power with galloping economic and military growth, China usually notices the importance of soft power and regards soft power as a major source of power, which could modify the existing international order and alleviate the international fear of and discontent with China. Against this backdrop, therefore, China has put enormous efforts into soft power construction. For example, in the past dozen years, China is escalating overseas investment, actively engaging in peacekeeping operations and humanitarian aid, expanding exchange programs in academic, language and cultural aspects, frequently hosting high-level meetings, and increasingly growing more active in international multilateral organizations ( Zheng, 2009 ). All of these actions are increasing China’s soft power in the world to some extent. In East Asia, with echoes of China’s political and economic influence, China’s soft power has already become a reality. On the other hand, after around 60 years of global leadership, the US has encountered growing anti-Americanism since the Iraq War ( Keohane & Katzenstein, 2006 ). A number of American scholars note the decline of America’s soft power. For example, Julia Sweig (2006) , a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, states that since 2000, the world holds declining views about the US. Sweig is not the only one; Joseph Nye (2004a), the creator of “soft power,” also stresses the decline of America’s soft power. Additionally, Fred Reed (2007), an American author, claims the US is the most hated country in the world, although America was once widely admired. After the financial crisis in 2008, many analyses and debates showed America’s decline ( Kong & Mei, 2012 ). Although the US retains its military and economic influence in East Asia, anti-US sentiment is rising even in America’s allies, such as South Korea (ROK). Some South Koreans even regard China as an alternative to the US, especially after two Korean middle school girls were hit by an American armored vehicle ( Lee, 2008 ). Given China’s enormous efforts to increase its in soft power, and the decline of America’s soft power, it seems like China not only tries to catch-up and compete with the US in economic and military fields, but also occupies the soft power vacuum left since America “lost” its attractiveness. Therefore, Nye (2005) talks about “the rise of China’s soft power—at America’s expense.” However, disputes about whether China’s rise weakens America’s global influence continue in academia. Therefore, the research questions are: Is soft power zero-sum? Is there a correlation between the rise of China’s soft power and the decline of America’s? If there a correlation exists, how strong is it? How should the potential correlation be interpreted via theoretical and empirical approaches? Based on the results of South Korean people’s opinions about China and the US, this paper analyzes above questions. This paper mainly consists of three parts. First, I will review existing academic and empirical literature about the topic and try to point out their limitations. Second, I will introduce the research design of this paper. In this part, I will justify variables, research models, and introduce my hypotheses. Then, I will conduct bivariate correlation and binary logistic regression model (BLM) on various independent variables and dependent variables, and interpret and discuss the results. On this basis, I will make conclusions and judgments about whether soft power is zero-sum.
Literature ReviewIn order to analyze the research question, it is necessary to understand soft power. Nye defines (2004b) soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” Moreover, soft power rests on three sources: culture, political ideology, and diplomacy ( Nye & Wang 2009 ). Additionally, in behavioral terms, soft power is attractive power, and in terms of resources, soft power resources are the assets that produce such attraction ( Nye & Wang 2009 ). Thus, different sources could produce different types of soft power, such as cultural soft power and economic soft power 2 . As a concept, soft power cannot be touched but could be truly perceived. According to Nye (2004b) , it is appropriate to assess soft power by checking public opinion, which is an indicator of soft power. Concretely speaking, a more favorable public opinion signifies stronger soft power, and a more unfavorable public opinion means weaker soft power. This part will briefly review existing literature about the research question.
- (1) Do you have a very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, or very unfavorable opinion of the US?
- (2) Do you have a very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, or very unfavorable opinion of China?
- (3) Overall, do you think that China’s growing economy is a good thing or a bad thing for our country?
- (4) How concerned are you, if at all, that territorial disputes between China and neighboring countries could lead to a military conflict? Very concerned, somewhat concerned, not too concerned, or not at all concerned?
- (5) Which comes closest to your view? China will eventually replace the US as the world’s leading superpower; China has already replaced the US; or China will never replace the US.
Research Model and ResultsAs the key dependent variables are binary, we must choose between linear regression models (LRM) or the more advanced logit models for binary responses. After taking into consideration the two main disadvantages of the LRM: that the fitted probability can be both less than zero and greater than one; and the partial effect of any explanatory variables is constant ( Wang & Guo, 2001 ), this paper uses bivariate correlations and the BLM rather than the LRM.
Results and Interpretations4
DiscussionBased on the results, respondents who give China positive evaluations, are more likely to be pro-American, this supports Wang’s arguments. China and America share similar images in the world, both are driving forces and beneficiaries of globalization. In addition to Wang’s arguments, the relevant empirical evidence is traceable in reality. Several years ago, the notions such as “G2” and “Chimerica” indicate that China and America have stepped into a co-existence era, and has the potential to develop into Sino-American joint leadership at the global level ( Ferguson, 2007 ; Pardo, 2014 ). Moreover, Chinese President Xi Jinping formally promoted the establishment of “a new type of Great Power relations” with America in 2013 ( People’s Daily, 2013 ). Additionally, both countries are vast in territory, play significant roles in the international arena, and are beneficiaries of the current international order, although there exist differences and contradictions between two countries. However, the Sino-American common images are more significant than differences. Therefore, considering China and America in an overall view, then soft power is nonzero-sum. South Korean respondents who are more concerned about China’s potential military conflicts, are more pro-American. Several East Asian countries are concerned about China’s military power and the territorial disputes with China. For example, in 2014, one South Korean survey found that 66.4% respondents regarded China as a significant military threat and they also worried about Sino-North Korean cooperation (CSIS, 2016). Moreover, realists such as John Mearsheimer (2009; 2006 ) claim that China has a high probability of being involved in a great power conflict to seeking regional domination. Given that South Korea’s security depends on America, we can conclude that if Korean people are concerned about security, they would be more pro-American. In this perspective, soft power is zero- sum. After the Cheonan issue, more and more South Korean people think China has a bias towards North Korea, and state that if China replaces America’s influence in the region, China would demand that United States Forces Korea (USFK) withdraw from the Korean peninsula. Thus, South Korean scholars suggest the ROK should maintain the ROK-US alliance ( Zhan, 2011 ). Pro-American respondents think and hope China cannot replace America as the leading power. In this sense, soft power is also zero-sum. Even more different is the data on the “opinion about China’s economic rise.” Theoretically, South Korea economically relies on China, and therefore, China should have more economic soft power. However, in this case, respondents’ opinions about China’s economic rise have no statistically significant relationship with America’s favorability, which means China’s economic soft power does not have a significant correlation with America’s soft power. The result reflects the fact that factors other than the “opinion about China’s economic rise” might have a higher significance in embodying China’s economic soft power, or that economic power cannot generate economic soft power with certainty. Although control variables are not key explanatory variables, these variables still could affect the results. Overall, among the control variables, “party affiliation” is the strongest indicator of respondents’ opinions about America. The effect of America’s soft power among people who support left-wing parties is weaker. South Korean political parties could be divided into left- and right-wing parties. Left-wing parties are anti- American, while right-wing parties are pro-American. The former regards America as the obstruction in the peninsula reunification process; thus, when they take power, left-wing parties are estranged from America. By contrast, right-wing parties take pro-American foreign policies. Between 1949 and 1998, the ruling party was right wing, and they relied on America during the Cold War. Therefore, a pro-American stance is compulsory for them ( Zhao & Yang, 2014 ). The result further confirms the strong correlations between party affiliation and attitudes towards foreign policies, and proves the stances of different South Korean parties. Additionally, in the bivariate correlation, “age” is not significantly correlated with America’s soft power, while in the BLM, the correlation become significant, which might be due to other explanatory variables’ influence in the model. Moreover, age is also a strong indicator of America’s soft power, although the coefficient B is not high. Younger people might hold more favorable opinions about America. Based on the result, America’s soft power might positively influence South Korean young people. However, the low coefficient demonstrates Korean people’s mixed feelings about America. As mentioned above, a right wing party ruled the ROK for a long duration, and therefore, it would be older generations that are more likely to support the right wing party and be pro-American. Thus, I check the bivariate correlation treatment and find that “age” has significant negative correlations with “party affiliation,” the Pearson’s r is -0.281 at 0.01 significance level. The result reflects that young people are more likely to support left wing parties. Combined with the above results, younger Koreans actually hold an unfavorable opinion about America. The reason age has negative correlations with America’s soft power is due to the very high favorability of America that the older generations hold. Put differently, it is more plausible to conclude that young are more likely to hold unfavorable opinions about America theoretically. Finally, the other three control variables, income, education and gender, have no significant relationship with America’s soft power, which means these variables have minimal significance. However, it is plausible that middle-high and high-earners are more inclined to stable and current international order, and therefore, they might take an exclusive attitude towards the change of world order ( Johnston, 2004 ). China’s rise would change the order, and bring both inexpensive and fine products into South Korea, which is beneficial to low- and middle-low earners. Thus, they might hold a favorable opinion about China. However, the income variable does not have a significant relationship with America’s and China’s soft power in bivariate analysis and the BLM. Moreover, similar to income, education is also expected to have a significant correlation with “opinion about America;” however, education does not influence people’s attitudes towards America either. In addition, Table 1 implies that gender is not statistically significant as far as people’s opinion about America are concerned.
ConclusionThe conclusions from this research are mixed. First, this paper further verifies and denies several conclusions of multinational public opinion polls and theoretical arguments. For example, most people harbor negative attitudes towards China’s military power, while not necessarily holding positive opinions about its economy, which implies economic power, might not guarantee the growth of soft power; China should avoid “buying” soft power, and instead consider how to “earn” soft power. Moreover, most people do not hold a positive attitude towards China’s growing military strength, and therefore, policies such as increasing military transparency, constructing valid standards on the use of armed force, holding dialogues with other countries’ armed forces, and clearly stating the intentions of its foreign policy and its attitudes towards regional pattern are especially important for China. Second, whether “soft power is zero-sum” is largely dependent on perspectives. If we discuss soft power from the legitimacy and moral authority of foreign policies, then soft power will be zero-sum, which was previously suggested by people’s opinions about China’s military conflict and the Sino-US leadership. However, if we view America and China in an overall view, we will find that both countries share similar national images in the world, which denies several US scholars’ arguments. Thus, soft power is nonzero-sum. This conclusion suggests that both countries should cooperate in improving their national image, as this is not a zero-sum game. Finally, control variables do not match prior research. Some variables, however, are still worth discussing. Overall, party affiliation is the strongest indicator of America’s soft power: supporters of a left wing party are more likely to be anti-American and constituencies of right wing parties are more likely to be pro-American. In addition, based on the BLM results, age has a negative relationship with America’s soft power, which means young people hold more favorable opinions about America. However, combined with the result of bivariate correlation and the BLM and South Korea’s history, I venture to assume that young people hold unfavorable opinions about America. Additionally, income, education, and gender have no significant relationship with America’s soft power, although the results do not meet theoretical arguments. Nonetheless, the conclusion still suggests that conducting public diplomacy is necessary for a state to improve its national image. In short, different perspectives could result in various results. Therefore, how to treat the rise of China’s soft power will decide whether soft power is zero-sum. 2 Some resources can generate both hard and soft power. For instance, a strong economy can produce important carrots for paying others, as well as a model of success that attracts others ( Nye & Wang, 2009 ). 3 See coding in Appendix . 4 Among 1,009 respondents, 908 respondents gave their explicit answer to all aforementioned five questions in Pew dataset. In order to scientifically testify aforementioned hypotheses, I omitted those respondents who expressed ‘Don’t Know’ to any one of these questions.
CodingPeople’s opinions about the US: 0 for “unfavorable”, 1 for “favorable”; People’s opinions about China: 0 for “unfavorable”, 1 for “favorable”; People’s opinions about China’s economic rise: 0 for “bad thing”, 1 for “good thing”; People’s opinions about China’s military conflict: 0 for “concerned”, 1 for “unconcerned”; Can China replace the US: 0 for “cannot”, 1 for “can”; Gender: 0 for “female”, 1 for “male”; Income level: 1 for “low level” (less than 1,990,000 won), 2 for “middle-low level” (between 1,990,000 and 3,260,000 won), 3 for “middle-high level” (between 3,260,000 and 4,490,000 won), and 4 for “high level” (more than 4,490,000 won); Party affiliation: 1 for “right-wing party” and 2 for “left-wing party”.
Biographical NoteXiaoyu Zhao graduated from the University of Warwick, UK. His research interests lie in the international relations of Asia-Pacific, Public opinion, and Psychology and Foreign Policy Decision Making. His publication “Game” Relations between China and Japan in East Asia: Great Power Rivalry and Peaceful Interdependence won the Emerging Scholar Award awarded by the Common Ground Research Networks. He can be reached at
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