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China’s foreign policy

China’s rise and ASEAN: A complex and evolving landscape

Written by Oliver Turner.

It is often said that as a new power rises it becomes more assertive and uses its increasing capabilities to expand its influence and even its territory abroad. Europe’s long history of expansionism, as well as the United States’ colonisation of much of North America, lends support to these claims. Some also see this in China’s modern day rise, for example in its intensified activities in Africa; the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to enhance its presence in Central Asia; its widespread investments in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere; and in its evolving relations with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Continue reading “China’s rise and ASEAN: A complex and evolving landscape”

Implications for China’s Soft Power under Xi Jinping

Written by Kingsley Edney.

Soft power has become a popular concept in China. When Hu Jintao mentioned soft power in his report to the 2007 National Party Congress he ignited an explosion of scholarly work on soft power and ensured that officials all around the country would take the concept seriously. As Hu’s administration promoted the notions of ‘peaceful rise’ (later ‘peaceful development’) and ‘harmonious world’, soft power in China came to primarily refer to ‘cultural soft power’ (wenhua ruan shili).

Nye’s three original soft power ‘resources’ — culture, political values and foreign policy — were trimmed to suit the party-state’s needs. Now that Xi Jinping’s leadership has shaken up Chinese domestic and foreign policy what are the implications for China’s soft power strategy? Continue reading “Implications for China’s Soft Power under Xi Jinping”

Selling China in the South Pacific: is anyone buying?

Written by Graeme Smith.

As the game show If You Are The One proves, soft power may emanate from China despite the Chinese government. Although contestants are told to avoid mention of “politics, religion, sex, pornography, violence, international relations or the Chinese government”, there are few vectors of influence the Chinese leadership are less comfortable with. Contestants are often visibly inebriated, and while the show was reined in for being “vulgar”, over 100 episodes were recently cut from overseas distribution because a host, Ning Caishen, admitted to a meth habit. Yet this addictive show is the now most important window on China for Australia.

Barry Buzan rightly argued that China has a poor image abroad as a result of domestic repression, and that the CCP’s morbid fear of civil society constrains its efforts to project soft power. Yet two of the three problems he identifies – that the Chinese government does not have a good image to sell abroad and that its totalitarian traditions mean that the government doesn’t know how to get out of the way – don’t tally with our research into China’s engagement with the Pacific.

In the Pacific, China’s government does have an image that Pacific elites and many ordinary citizens are attracted to. Popular perceptions of China in the Pacific and Africa are undermined by concerns for democracy, but this is balanced by perceived strengths in alleviating poverty and “getting things done”. China’s substantial investment in infrastructure beyond its borders may be more about reducing domestic overcapacity than projecting soft power, but this aspect of China’s brand is appreciated.

A recent realisation within MOFCOM that roads, schools and hospitals are more appreciated by host countries (if not politicians) than lavish stadiums and government buildings will burnish China’s image further. Nor is China’s appeal limited to infrastructure. In our interviews, it became clear that while scholarships to study in China were less sought after than those for Australia and New Zealand, they were still desired. Less appeal isn’t no appeal. The number of scholarships—2000 for the Pacific—means that a cohort of China-connected Pacific Islanders will develop, as it has in Africa.

In much of the world Chinese soft power exists, but the Chinese state, rather than being in the way, is barely present. China’s embassies, due to restrictions on central government staffing numbers, are ghostly. The first concern of the handful of officials is pleasing their superiors in Beijing lest their next posting be even further out of the way that Nuku’alofa, not selling China to the locals. Their work, largely, is providing support for visiting business delegations. Far from China’s borders, it is companies engaging in infrastructure and mining projects, and countless business migrants who are the vectors of Chinese soft power.

Chinese construction companies, such as COVEC, have inadvertently burnished China’s image through their willingness to take on infrastructure projects in regions (such as the Highlands of PNG) where other contractors are reluctant to tread. COVEC is an SOE on paper, but central control is almost entirely absent from their branch in Port Moresby. Yet for locals these projects demonstrate a state—China—getting things done, building infrastructure and creating jobs where their own state does not reach. This feeds into existing stereotypes. As former Prime Minister Michael Somare opined to Al Jazeera:

Chinese are workaholics; they work from six o’clock in the morning, even at night, until they complete the task. Ask the Melanesians. We work when time permits us. When we feel that after ten o’clock when we are tired, we go and sit under a tree. Our work ethic has to be changed in this country; we have to work much harder.

The largest Chinese project in the Pacific, a nickel mine run by China Metallurgical Corporation, has struggled to sell China. Company management has come to realise that like other mining companies working in remote Papua New Guinea, in the eyes of the locals, they are the state. The state-owned flavour of company management means that its efforts mimic the Chinese state, from ham-fisted propaganda to popular acrobatic displays. Yet PNG staff have brought success, notably Mathew Yakai, whose press releases run unchanged in the national newspapers, and whose blog reveals much about the appeal of China to Pacific islanders. Local staff have even persuaded the company to partner with a local “spiritual development foundation” who regularly lead religious “crusades.”

Like the producers of If You Are The One, the group with the most influence on China’s brand in the Pacific is reviled by Chinese officials: migrants. A report commissioned by the Guangdong Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs in the wake of riots in the Solomon Islands revealed the depth of contempt felt by the state towards business migrants. Unlike other commentators, they blamed the unrest (which saw Honiara’s Chinatown burnt to the ground) squarely on recent arrivals from the Pearl River Delta, describing them as “such low quality that they have no ability to compete in China… They treat [locals] like slaves” and asking “If goods have export quality standards, should migrants also meet a quality standard?”

Yet this group of migrants, in the past the target of violence in Timor Leste, Tonga and Papua New Guinea, may provide an unanticipated boost to China’s soft power stocks. Younger, middle class Chinese are being drawn to the Pacific, lured by clean air and a slower pace of life. They understand social media and the value of building local networks. A recent post to the Facebook group Yumi Tok Stret in Vanuatu did more to defuse anger towards the Chinese community than any embassy missive could:

hi all members of YTS . I am a chinese , the most hated community in prot vila —- CHINESE.

I have joined YTS for a couple month jst to see local updates . I’m not sure if this is a good or bad idea for now because I can see how much U nivans hate Chinese . SIMPLY hate everything about chinese. For the record yes we have small eyes than nivans , ok u win . I understand that there’s no hates coming from nowhere . yes some chinese has done some really bad things while running their businesses here in Port Vila , like put expired tin food on sale , like underpay nivan workers, like selling crapy products . Thoes r all for money . thoes r all because GOV doesnt do its job to enforce the law . When gov can regulaly check on all businesses and give tough disciplines, no one would be that stupid to break the law .

This businessman and his friends fill their feeds with food and selfies, but also with their community relief work in the wake of Vanuatu’s all to frequent natural disasters. Once the oversized novelty cheque has been discovered, soft power cannot be far behind.

Graeme Smith is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. He is co-editor of East Asia’s Demand for Energy, Minerals and Food (Routledge, 2015). Image by Hadi Zaher/Flickr

China’s Rising Economic Soft Power

Written by John Wong.

Shortly after consolidating his power to become China’s only real “strong man” since Deng Xiaoping, President Xi Jinping promised national rejuvenation to realize his “Chinese dream”. Externally, Xi has been pursuing an active foreign policy to elevate China’s international standing. The main thrust of Xi’s foreign policy is to cultivate “good-neighbourly relations” with countries on its periphery and closer ties with countries afar. At the global level, China has actively sought to promote a “new type of major-country relationship” with the world’s sole hegemon, the United States. Continue reading “China’s Rising Economic Soft Power”

The Rise of Chinese Soft Power in Africa

Written by Adams Bodomo.

Is there Chinese soft power in Africa, and how does this compare with American soft power? Most people often begin discussion on soft power with the definition first put forth by American scholar, Joseph Nye. For me, soft power comprises the positive socio-political and socio-cultural influences a polity and its citizens have on another polity and its citizens without the threat of gun-boat diplomacy or even outright blind violence.

Seen in this way, I want to compare the US and China, the two most prominent soft power brokers in the world. I will claim that the US used to have a strong soft power in Africa but it is waning while China is beginning to register a rising soft power in Africa.

Socio-politically, the American political system does not seem to inspire as many people in Africa as it used to do, say in the 1980s and 1990s, especially under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Washington now appears to be supervising over a dysfunctional democracy. President Barack Obama, being someone of African origins, used to inspire Africans in the early years of his presidency but he has now become a man of sweet smelling but empty words as he has not been able to build on the hope that he promised at the beginning of his presidency. Africans have realized that Washington doesn’t have much further to offer them in terms of socio-political capital, with very few socio-political lessons to emulate. If Africans are not talking in loud tones and tunes against Washington it may be because we are uncomfortable with their hard power, we live in fear of Africom, of deadly drones, and callous imposition of sanctions.

On the contrary, China is having positive socio-political influences on Africa, African leaders, and ideologically literate Africans on the African streets. Many Africans now realise that the Chinese way of handling its political economy is far better than that of the fiscally irresponsible American and western governments in general. China and other prudent Asian economies bailed the world out of the banking disaster induced by some greedy western leaders and businessmen that caused untold hardships on Africans since 2008.

China, along with Russia, India and Brazil, is behaving towards Africans in a far better way than the US and its western allies, some representatives of which are often arrogant and haughty at international meetings within the UN system and beyond. America, Britain, and France often resort more to hard power, more to military invasion and gun-boat diplomacy, than soft power to convince Africans at international fora whereas China uses more of pragmatic and mutual self-interest diplomacy – more of soft power – to convince Africans at international fora, though of course we must mention that the rumoured building of a military base in Djibouti is an unfortunate attempt to emulate the hard power options used by western powers – and a step in the wrong direction by Beijing, if this rumour is proven right.

Socio-culturally, US soft power is waning in Africa whereas China’s soft power is increasing. The use of English in Africa is not – or no longer  – an example of American soft power, but the increasing learning of Chinese is an instance of growing Chinese soft power. Young people in Africa don’t think well of America and Britain as a land of milk and honey when they open their mouths to speak English, but young people in Africa learning Chinese do think of China as a land of opportunity with which they hope to trade or engage in other ways after successfully learning the language at the 50 or more Confucius Institutes springing up everywhere in Africa – great symbols of Chinese soft power in Africa.

Hollywood films and popular music have often been mentioned as symbols of American soft power in Africa but this is getting anachronistic. Africans are not looking at Hollywood and seeing good things in the American socio-cultural system and getting awed about it. Africans are looking to Hollywood to emulate good examples from their fellow Africans, from their brothers and sisters there, even if Hollywood itself appears to be tone-deaf about diversity. There are many successful Africans in America and Europe and Africans look to these people for inspiration, not to the racist socio-cultural constellation that is called America, where a Black man is gunned down almost on a daily basis. On the contrary, Chinese socio-cultural soft power aspects are rising in Africa. When young Africans practice Bruce Lee Kunfu styles they think positively of Chinese culture, this is soft power at the socio-cultural level. 

Research by myself and the Korean scholar, Eun-Sook Chabal, is showing that Africans in the diaspora are beginning to enjoy Asian popular music, particularly the cultural consumption of the Korean wave items like music and Korean TV drama series. When Africans consume these they consume Chinese and general Asian soft power products. Asian soft power is rising faster in Africa than American and general western soft power.  Chinese herbal medicine, particularly herbal tea in the middle class African living room, is fast becoming a popular Chinese cultural consumption item in Africa by the middle class. A lot of research still needs to be done here.

On a personal note, as someone who has attended many fora in China, America, Europe and met with many African, Chinese, and western diplomats and academics, on the whole the Africans are often more at ease, more relaxed with the Chinese side than with the western side. There appears to be more symmetry among Africans and Chinese and more asymmetry among Africans and westerners at such meetings. And symmetry has a solid, strong connection to soft power, as the title of one of my articles – “Symmetry, soft power and South Africa” –, a pioneering study on symmetry and soft power in Africa – China relations, shows.

There is Chinese soft power in Africa – and it is rising!

Adams Bodomo, a native of Ghana region of Africa, is professor of African Studies at the University of Vienna, where he directs the University’s Global African Diaspora Studies (GADS) research centre. Image credit: CC by European External Action Service/Flickr.

Soft Power on the Defensive: The Contradictions of Chinese Foreign Policy

Written by James F. Paradise.

China’s soft power offensive has not been fully effective. One reason is that many outsiders find it difficult to buy into Chinese values because of political repression, cultural chauvinism and bad pollution in China. Another reason is that some activities in the military and economic spheres are starting to give China a bad reputation. This is creating a situation in which the hard power activities are starting to undermine the genuinely good soft power activities. That’s a serious problem for the Chinese government as it will make the quest for international friendship and support more difficult.

Many of the criticisms of China are overblown and have more to do with the diminishing power of the United States in the world than China itself. Creation of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), for example, is more likely to be a good thing that helps overcome the shortfall of infrastructure finance in Asia than be a source of trouble as has often been suggested by the U.S. which tried to persuade its allies not to join the institution before offering its grudging “support” while remaining a non-member along with major powers Japan and Canada. Like other new institutions or initiatives that China is launching, which it typically bills as “open and inclusive” such as The Silk Road Economic Belt or the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the AIIB can be thought of as a kind of “soft balancing” instrument that will contribute to global public goods.

Similarly, many of the concerns about cultural and educational activities seem exaggerated. Rather than fretting about an insidious design of the Chinese to take over the world, many foreigners are happily studying Chinese at Confucius Institutes across the globe, enjoying Chinese concerts or art exhibits in North American or European cities or are busy making friends at Chinese universities while they are studying Chinese history or economics. Mainly those who worry about the “other” or are experiencing extreme psychological discomfort from changes in the international balance of power are getting worked up about the spread of Chinese culture.

More serious are some of the activities occurring in the hard power sphere. These include the creation of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, land reclamation activities in the South China Sea and the modernization of the Chinese military, which has included the addition of China’s first aircraft carrier to its arsenal. Articulating concerns about China’s activities in the South China Sea, which also include the deployment of missile launchers and fighter jets on one disputed island, one U.S. admiral indicated that China might be trying to attain “hegemony in East Asia,” which is probably what it is trying to do.

Other concerns are being expressed by Western executives in China who claim that the Chinese business environment for international companies is becoming less hospitable because of things like “forced technology transfer,” anti-monopoly investigations and difficulties in obtaining business licenses for some activities. Descriptions of the anti-trust investigations include words like “aggressive” and “ruthless,” and note that foreign businesses say they are being targeted. Yet another area where concerns exist is with the expansion of Chinese companies overseas. There, they have been accused of resource exploitation, harsh working conditions, payment of low wages and failing to promote local workers to managerial positions, none of which are good for China’s international image. So bad have some of the activities been that China has even been accused of being “neo-colonialist,” an extraordinary description given China’s long solidarity with developing countries.

Whether or not China’s activities can be justified can in some cases be debated. One could argue, for example, that other countries have created ADIZ’s so China should be allowed to do so also or that other countries, such as Vietnam, have done land reclamation in the South China Sea so why shouldn’t China (at least this disclosure puts China’s actions in greater context)? And what is wrong with China vigorously enforcing its anti-monopoly law? Isn’t this something the U.S. should be doing more of? And don’t forget that China is a developing country in some respects and may need to protect its infant and strategic industries (provided doing so does not violate World Trade Organization law) in the same way that the U.S. and the United Kingdom did when they were in an earlier stage of their development before they “kicked away the ladder.” As for claims that Chinese companies are riding roughshod over the environment and their employees in developing countries, there may be some truth to that, but China is learning and trying to correct its mistakes. And anyhow, China is not the only country whose companies have sinned (or experienced problems) in foreign countries.

Regardless of whether one accepts these arguments, and much could be said on both sides of what are very complicated and nuanced issues, the fact is that some of China’s actions are generating fear and concern in some foreign countries. Evidence for this comes from a Pew Research Centre survey that found in 2015 54 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of China and only 38 percent had a favorable view, a reversal from 2012, the year Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, when 40 percent of Americans had a unfavorable view and 40 percent a favorable view. Among the issues that Americans were concerned about to the extent that they rated them as very serious or somewhat serious were cyberattacks from China (86 percent), China’s policies on human rights (85 percent) and China’s growing military power (82 percent). Other advanced industrialized countries where unfavorable views outnumbered favourable views included Spain, Italy, Canada, Germany and Japan. Fairly, however, it should be noted that many countries in the world had more favorable than unfavorable views of China, including developed country Australia and even Malaysia and the Philippines with whom it is locked in a dispute over the ownership of South China Sea islands. “On balance, global views of China are positive,” Pew Research Center wrote in its 2014 report.

Indications of problems in the Chinese business environment are found in the 2016 China Business Climate Survey Report of The American Chamber of Commerce in the People’s Republic of China that found that 77 percent of survey member respondents felt that foreign businesses in China were “less welcome than before” while only 23 percent felt they were “more welcome than before.” Among the major business challenges identified by survey respondents were “inconsistent regulatory interpretation and unclear laws” and “obtaining required licenses.”

To overcome these anxieties, China needs to take confidence-building actions. On the international side, one thing that it should do is to ensure that it lives up to its “win-win” rhetoric. This would go a long way to allaying fears of Chinese economic aggression and exploitation, and might even enable a more cooperative approach to dealing with thorny Asian island disputes. A second thing that it should do is to provide more global public goods. Provision of more development finance through new multilateral institutions of its creation or support and activities to combat international maritime piracy are steps in the right direction, but there is still a sense that China’s interventions are highly selective and not always well-integrated with multilateral mechanisms. That has given China an image as a “free rider” on some issues and not fully a team player.

A third thing that China should do is to stop bullying countries with whom it disagrees on some matters and taking the position “my way or the highway.” Countries that have suffered China’s wrath or threats, and in some cases diplomatic repercussions, have included the UK, after Prime Minister David Cameron met the Dalai Lama, Norway, after the Oslo-based Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo and South Korea, whose main opposition political party interim chairman was told by China’s ambassador to the country in February 2016 – after North Korea had done its fourth nuclear test and put a satellite into orbit through a rocket launch – that deployment of the U.S.’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system “could destroy” relations between Beijing and Seoul, which had been very good.

Hard-edged statements such as this do not serve China well, nor do the hardball politics that try to deny to foreign powers the right to express opinions on humans rights issues, as they call into question the narrative of China’s peaceful rise and make it appear that Beijing is inflexible and unconstructive which on many issues it is not as it proved when it signed on to United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea in March 2016 and made the very sensible suggestion that a peace treaty be concluded to end the Korean War.

On the domestic side as well, China needs to make changes. The main change that it should make is to stop persecuting or imprisoning those with dissenting views or legitimate grievances. Doing this would go a long way to improving China’s image and creating a healthier political system as measured by things such as protection of political rights and civil liberties that Freedom House scores and governance standards such as “voice and accountability,” “political stability and absence of violence/terrorism” and “rule of law” that the World Bank measures through it’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators.” Another thing that China could do is to tone down the military discussion and imagery, which as anyone who has watched Chinese television knows, is quite pervasive, which is a problem because it feeds Chinese nationalism which is not a friend of soft power.

Making some of these changes will not be easy for China as China has its own political traditions dating back thousands of years and its own national interests that on some issues, especially ones which it regards as “core,” diverge from those of others. Not making them, however, will mean that some foreigners will find unappealing – and even objectionable – some Chinese practices and that its hard power activities will “crowd out” its legitimate soft power activities which will make it harder for China to win the hearts and minds of people around the world. This does not mean that China has to do things “the Western way.” But it does mean that when China does things its way, it has to improve on the West on matters such as environmental protection, respect for human rights and so on. This is a formula for great success; only time will tell whether China is the benevolent and enlightened power that it often presents itself as.

James F. Paradise is an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Wonju, South Korea. Image credit: CC by European External Action Service/Flickr.

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