Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Soft power and the United States' strategic "rebalancing" to the Asia-Pacific region

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posted on 2021-11-14, 07:39 authored by Pham, Thu Linh

Power in international relations can be defined in several different ways. Power can be understood as a goal of states or leaders involving a measure of influence or control over outcomes, events, actors and issues; achieving victory in conflict and the attainment of security; control over resources and capabilities; or status, which some states or actors possess and other do not. Modern discourse in international relations generally speaks in terms of state power, indicating both economic and military power. The capabilities to handle those above functions are different from state to state and can be measured in different ways as well as with respect to different dimensions, among which “hard” and “soft” power can be taken into consideration. In the policy-making process of any states, hard power and soft power strategies are rarely separated but they are, in fact, closely related. The relationship between hard power and soft power has become an increasingly popular topic both inside and outside the USA in considering how to strengthen its status in the world arena, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. American politicians, businessmen and scholars have constantly stressed the need and the opportunities of using soft power instead of hard power to manage the USA’s international relations, especially in this important region. The policy of the U.S. government towards this region is reflected through its strategic rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region, which was announced by the Obama Administration in 2010. Since it came into being, this strategy has been described by several names including “return”, “pivot” or “rebalancing to Asia”. Although the strategy may be referred to by different names, it aims at describing the new prioritization in the foreign and national security policy of the United States. In order to examine the importance of both “hard” and “soft” power in international relations, American soft power and the implementation of its soft power in the “rebalancing” strategy, four research questions come to mind. They are:  1. What are the definitions soft power and hard power in international relations? 2. How does the US make use of both hard and soft power in building its capabilities and position in the region of Asia-Pacific? 3. What are the US’s intentions in its announced shift in focus to the Asia-Pacific region? 4. What are the regional responses to the US’ policy including by Vietnam? 5. What ensures the future success of the rebalance in the region?  Due to the US’s growing emphasis on the use of soft power, the research will focus specifically on two questions; what are the soft power strategies of the US in this region; and what are Vietnam’s attitudes towards these strategies. If one can distinguish soft power elements in this policy shift, it is still important to consider the role of hard power elements and what larger regional role the US will play if its policy shift is successful. The focus of the research is on US actions and will exclude the effects of the policy on domestic policies in the Asia-Pacific, with the exception of briefly summarizing the changing stance of regional countries, thereby, showing the effects of American soft power on the region and on the US itself. Before examining the research questions, a theoretical framework will be provided in the first section of this paper discussing the content of hard power and soft power as described by several political analysts and theorists. This aims at giving an idea of the numerous definitions attached to hard and soft power as well as to lay out the analytical tools for the third section in which the “pivot” in the US’s Asia-Pacific policy will be examined. In the next section, regional attitudes towards the US’ “rebalancing” strategy, especially Vietnam’s, will be surveyed. The thesis will conclude with a discussion on whether these strategies are in line with the US’s use of soft power with their policies in other parts of the world and why the use of soft power, which can help to ensure the successes of this policy direction, does not yet seem to have received adequate attention. The significance of the study will be to enhance understanding of the role of hard and soft power in building the US’s status in the world arena, especially in realizing its “return to Asia” strategy. Moreover, this study may interest those whose work is closely related to the US and its policies, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, enabling them to have more understanding, which they can use to initiate appropriate strategies in their work. It is obvious from the broad audiences above that a census is not feasible for this study. Accordingly, the research approach includes informal interviews in which a sample from the target population of interested parties is used for the study. In total, a sample of 20 was selected. First, the target population was divided into political leadership, governmental officials and other relevant peoples in the Asia-Pacific region. Then they were grouped into those who are experienced, non-experienced and little experienced in working with the US. This ensured a fair representation of each group since their understanding and experiences are significantly different. The focus of the study is on personal attitudes and perceptions and the importance of primary data cannot be over-emphasized. Before the collection of actual data, the researcher sent introductory letters from the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations to the sampled offices and institutions. The initial visit to the selected offices and institutions was therefore to introduce the researcher, obtain familiarity with those offices and institutions as well as seek their consent for the study. The researcher collected data by administering a questionnaire. The questionnaire used open questions, consisting of five questions seeking to answer research questions related to soft power and the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. The results of the study should provide interested parties with a panorama of the US’s “return to Asia” strategy, its contributions to development in relations between the US and the region’s countries and Vietnam’s responses to it with specific respect to its soft power elements. In particular, the insights yielded by the study into the role of soft power should tell much about the likely success of this policy and its implications for those in the region who interact with the US. Although this research was carefully prepared, it still has some limitations. First, the research was conducted in such a short time that it was not possible for the researcher to read all the materials related to the topic. Therefore, the thesis cannot reflect all aspects of the issue. Second, the population of the sample population was small, only 20. In addition, since the researcher conducted the interviews herself, it is unavoidable that a certain degree of subjectivity can be found in this study.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

International Relations

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of International Relations

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Rabel, Rob