Chinese Diplomacy and Soft Power in an Era of “Great-Power Competition”

Tensions between the U.S. and China have risen further over the past month. In late June, NATO named China as a security challenge for the first time. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s mooted visit to Taiwan has prompted prognostications of a potential fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis. Adding fuel to the fire, some American lawmakers and former officials have urged Pelosi to “show strength and not cower to the bullying of the Chinese Communist Party,” cautioning that “timidity is dangerous.” Last week, Chinese ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang delivered an unexpectedly ferocious performance at the Aspen Security Forum that many participants described as a potential “prelude to World War III.” All of this recent trans-Pacific saber-rattling has generated media articles invoking the “Thucydides Trap” trope and stoking fears about China seeking to “replace the U.S. order.” Such escalatory rhetoric confirms one thing that officials and analysts from both countries can agree on: great-power competition has become the dominant frame of reference in Sino-American relations. 

On Sunday, Beijing hosted a symposium on “studying Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy,” a philosophy that the keynote speaker, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, praised as having “provided the fundamental guidance and the guide to action for conducting China’s foreign affairs in the new era.” Earlier that week, in a Foreign Affairs article calling for more guardrails in the U.S.-China relationship, Asia Society President and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described how China’s current ideological framing of the great-power competition, even if it is not publicly acknowledged, has locked its foreign-policy establishment into a hawkish stance

Beijing’s unwillingness to explicitly characterize the relationship as one of strategic competition stems from the fact that doing so would confirm that China is indeed in a real-world contest for regional and global preeminence. And that would run counter to Beijing’s official line that its global ambition is only to develop a “community of common destiny for all humankind,” not to maximize Chinese national power.

Nonetheless, China appears to be edging toward accepting the reality (if not the language) of managing its competitive relationship with the United States. Beijing might, for example, be able to accept a combination of peaceful competition and constructive cooperation within a framework of necessary strategic guardrails. In the Chinese system, far more than in the American one, the actual words used to describe a strategic framework matter because they can authorize substantive action on the part of working-level officials otherwise trapped within a linguistic cage of ideological dogma. This phenomenon is especially visible among Chinese diplomats, who have been pushed by domestic political incentives toward nationalistic “Wolf Warrior” rhetoric. An ideological reframing from above is needed to authorize less ideological and more pragmatic diplomatic activity from below. [Source]

Writing for Foreign Affairs, Michael Brenes and Van Jackson described how China’s aggressive style of diplomacy has mirrored hawkishness in the U.S., and how America’s anti-China foreign policy agenda may threaten to undermine democracy at home and abroad:

Like its American cousin, Chinese ethnonationalism is a problem because it begets belligerence. The CCP’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy—the aggressive style of diplomacy adopted under Xi’s administration—is less a sign of insecurity than it is a symptom of nationalism being stoked for deliberately political ends. And ethnonationalism rationalizes the expansive modernization projects of the People’s Liberation Army, just as the same jingoistic, racially tinged sentiments in the United States are used to justify massive Pentagon budgets. Reactionaries in Washington and Beijing are mirror-imaging each other, and benefiting politically from the negative synergy of rivalry.

Recent history has also made it evident that great-power rivalry does not help efforts to weaken autocrats, and may end up doing the opposite. […] Rivalry between countries is not a viable framework for democratic improvement within them. Instead, geopolitical competition compels the United States to make undemocratic moral compromises in the name of democracy. In a rush to convince everyone that “America is back” as leader of the “free world,” the Biden administration has drawn hypocrisy-riddled distinctions between dictatorship and democracy as an ideological basis for great-power rivalry. But it is self-defeating—and logically contradictory—to enlist foreign governments in an anti-China, anti-Russia foreign policy agenda when the same mindset justifies U.S. backing of despotic, demagogic leaders from Turkey to Saudi Arabia to the Philippines and beyond. The United States’ limited political influence could be much better spent. [Source]

In the Washington Post newsletter “Today’s WorldView” on Tuesday, Eurasia Group’s Ali Wyne warned of dangers in aligning U.S. policy around great-power competition and the risk of overstating the competitive challenges that China presents: “Formidable, multifaceted competitors though they are, Beijing and Moscow are not as strategically skillful as U.S. commentary sometimes suggests; China’s diplomacy has increasingly estranged it from the advanced industrial democracies that still wield the balance of global power.” Elaborating on that point at The Diplomat, Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that China’s global image has deteriorated, partly due to its “poor diplomacy” and “failing soft power efforts,” notably in the media sphere:

China’s negative image is also undermining its soft power, making it harder to repair its negative reputation in the next five years. A lack of soft power in the zero-COVID era – visitor programs, journalism training programs, Confucius Institutes, programs for students to come to China – makes it harder for Beijing to spread its developmental model. Beijing’s image has become so toxic that countries are closing Confucius Institutes, banning or reducing the reach of Chinese state media outlets, and limiting other potential sources of Chinese soft power. Many universities in the U.S. and Europe have shut down Confucius Institutes and also begun cutting links with sister programs in China, sometimes moving the sister programs to Taiwan instead. [Source]

Recent public opinion polls revealed mixed international perceptions of China’s image. A survey published last month by the Swedish National China Centre revealed that the Swedish public have a largely negative view of China, potential cooperation with China, China’s respect for democratic rights, China’s potential investment in Sweden, and China’s model for society. However, polls in Hungary have revealed the opposite. A survey this month by Central and Eastern European Center for Asian Studies revealed that a majority of Hungarian voters were optimistic about China’s expanding footprint in the country, with about 80 percent of Fidesz voters (those of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s governing party) supporting Chinese influence in Hungarian politics and its institutions of higher education. 

A Pew Research Center global survey published one month ago mapped the contours of China’s public diplomacy. The survey covered 19 advanced economies in Europe, North America, and Asia, almost all of which displayed increasingly negative opinions of China. However, citizens in all but one country believed China’s influence was growing more than that of the U.S., and young people in numerous countries were more positive towards China and less positive towards the U.S. than were older adults. Singapore and Malaysia stood out as the only two countries that were more favorably inclined toward China than toward the U.S. Malaysia was the only country surveyed that is still considered a developing country. Since perceptions of China’s image may diverge between the developed and developing world, Western analyses of great-power competition that focus exclusively on developed countries may skew their assessments of Chinese public diplomacy. In much of Southeast Asia, for example, other polls show that China’s image has surpassed that of the U.S. due to China’s early COVID-19 outreach.

Mixed results have not stopped the Chinese government from pursuing its soft power efforts across a variety of regions. During the symposium on Sunday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that Chinese diplomatic missions “have been calling upon nations to […] constantly boost the influence and charm of Chinese philosophy and Chinese solutions.” This push by diplomatic missions to boost China’s image has been particularly apparent in regional media. Chinese officials have written two of the last five articles about China in EU Observer, a leading online newspaper about EU affairs. One from the Chinese Mission to the EU on July 18 was titled “Ensuring global food security: what China says and does”; the other was written by the head of the mission’s economic and commercial office on July 22 and titled “For China and EU, cooperation is our only right way forward.” In Euractiv, the other leading source on EU affairs, the same articles were published on the same days, meaning that two of the last six articles in Euractiv were authored by Chinese officials. Earlier this month, the Chinese mission to the EU penned a third article in Euractiv about NATO, touting Xi Jinping’s Global Security Initiative and closing with a familiar warning: “For our friends, we have fine wine. For jackals or wolves, we welcome with shotguns.” Around the same time, almost every major Kenyan newspaper ran a column by the Chinese ambassador to Kenya that refuted American accusations about Chinese “debt-traps” in Africa (which have also been criticized by Chinese and Western scholars alike). 

In his Discourse Power newsletter, Tuvia Gering highlighted a recent article by Lin Sixian of the School of International Journalism and Communication at the Beijing Foreign Studies University that outlined countermeasures to the West’s “public opinion warfare” against China

“First, it is necessary to accurately grasp the current international public opinion struggle, distinguish between “friends and foes” on the international public opinion front, and struggle 斗争 with the Western anti-China mainstream media while seeking sympathy and feedback from friendly international media.

“In the current international environment, the Western anti-China media should undoubtedly be our struggle’s primary target, while many media stakeholders in Russia and neighboring developing countries can be regarded as a foreign backup.

[…] “Therefore, China should try to unite as much as possible the international media stakeholders that it can win over, while doing its utmost to isolate and strike down 打击 the remaining anti-China media outlets in the United States, Britain, and other countries that hold unto their hard-line positions. [Source]

Lin’s call for China to struggle against Western media and coordinate with friendly international media in developing countries aligns with China’s broader diplomatic efforts to court the developing world. Many of these efforts are seen in the context of great-power competition, wherein China has attempted to rally developing countries to form a rival bloc against the U.S., notably through the UN and the Global Security Initiative, while U.S. diplomacy with developing nations has often come up short. As far back as 2019, China overtook the U.S. as the nation with the most diplomatic outposts around the world, and almost three years later, the U.S. continues to face chronic understaffing in its embassies in Africa. Commenting on this dichotomy for Foreign Policy this month, Howard French described how China’s engagement with the Global South is driven out of self-interest and presents a missed opportunity for the U.S.:

What is new is that the developing world has more of an alternative to the West than any time in the recent past. Language out of Washington shows that U.S. leaders at least implicitly understand that China is not in the charity game either, but they fail to grasp a more important insight: China has gotten into the global public goods game with both feet during the last three decades for a variety of reasons, but most importantly, out of an understanding that the future of the international economy lies to a great extent in the global south.

This is where future global growth will occur. This is where a huge, coming change in global demographics will take place. This is where the trading partners, talented and energetic labor, and customers of the future will come from. Beijing understands that this is an opportunity for China—not some falsely construed charity operation and certainly not a rathole.

[…] The West is great at generating slogans and names for economic partnerships with acronyms that will be quickly forgotten, but in the meantime, because of its failure to change the way it thinks about the opportunity the global south represents to the West and the world, it risks seeing the future pass it by. [Source]


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