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China's Sharp Power and South Korea's Peace Initiative
Author: Kim Tae-Hwan
Region: Asia
Location: China
Published July 29, 2019
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If we understand geopolitics as “representations of space” as well as “spatial practices,” then the Indo-Pacific region can be understood as a newly emerging geopolitical hotspot in which major powers are not only vying for the control of spaces, but also waging a war of discourse on values and worldviews, reconstructing geographical spaces in their own interest. Discourse on a nation’s visions and strategies are increasingly employed as a soft power instrument of foreign policy to persuade the international audience, both state and non-state actors. Sharp power is gaining ground in this peculiar context of geopolitical competition combined with the battle for values and ideas.

China is at center stage in this geopolitics-cum-discourse game in the Indo-Pacific region. “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative and better communicate China’s messages to the world,” Xi Jinping exhorted his comrades in 2014, underscoring the importance of international discourse as a type of communicative soft power. But it is hard to distinguish sharp power from soft power solely in terms of the assets employed, as both utilize similar assets. The differences between the two are revealed only by looking into how those assets are mobilized in the real world. When actually put to use, sharp power is often mingled with soft and hard power, easily stretching into the realm of conventional security.

This chapter delves into how Beijing has been creatively capitalizing on a hybrid approach, using both hard and sharp power in disseminating its message in narrative form. By putting a special focus on Beijing’s strategic moves made against the backdrop of the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea, I examine the ways China combines its sharp and hard power in tackling security issues that its leadership considers as serving “core national interests.” I also address South Korea’s response to China’s sharp power offensive through the lens of inclusionary identity politics, which underscores the need for constructing a shared identity based upon a common vision, even on such critical issues as security. China’s sharp power certainly poses grave challenges to the liberal international order, but what makes Beijing’s value-based offensive sharpedged is essentially not the discourse per se, but the methods it employs in propagating its narrative. Amidst the contending blocs of values between liberalism and counter-liberalism, South Korea, resorting to peace diplomacy as a non-great middle power, should play the role of a reconciler to avoid the clash of values and ideas, if not civilizations. Below, I argue that South Korea’s peace diplomacy should be ultimately aimed at designing its diplomatic trajectory of advancing counter-geopolitics in order to mitigate geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific region.

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