The American withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement has opened the door to China to try and strike a pose as the leading defender of liberalized trade and globalization. The public face of this new push is none other than China’s president, Xi Jinping. This month, Xi became the first Chinese president to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland where he set forth the case for continuing to expand global trade.
His effort was at least somewhat successful, with the Wall Street Journal running the headline “China’s Xi Seizes Role as Leader on Globalization.” China has backed its leader’s public statements with a renewed push for a regional trade deal of its own called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Program, or RCEP. China is also looking at pursuing separate deals with countries that were once set to join the TPP. The RCEP is not an anti-TPP program (several countries are part of both initiatives) but the failure of the TPP has opened the door for China to position itself as taking the lead on trade liberalization.
Xi’s effort to portray China as the leader of the pro-globalization camp is not entirely new; it is just the latest effort by China to expand its international soft power. Soft power is a notoriously vague term coined by Joseph Nye to describe the ability of a country to get what it wants without coercion or force. China has spent many years pursuing influence by way of growing its soft power but its previous efforts have produced anemic results. There is a good chance Xi’s current public relations offensive will fall short for the same reasons previous efforts had so much difficulty.
China’s efforts to accumulate greater soft power by improving its international image have included hosting events like the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai Expo. However, hosting big international events has not always gotten China the positive press it craves. For example, China has hosted the Miss World pageant six times since 2003 but the most recent headlines it won were about how Beijing denied Miss Canada a visa, preventing her from competing because she has criticized the Chinese government for human rights abuses.
China has also tried to advance its cultural reach through measures like the Confucius Institutes, which partner with foreign universities to open Chinese language and cultural programs. But the Confucius Institute initiative has run into problems as well. Beijing doesn’t want to fund academics who criticize its policies so a number of major universities have terminated their relationships with Confucius Institutes over concerns about academic freedom.
Undeterred, China has pursued other soft power initiatives like joining the Paris Climate Accords to improve its image on environmental issues. It has leaned on the overseas Chinese diaspora to help expand its economic and diplomatic reach. And of course it has tried to leverage its huge and growing economy to win favor abroad via initiatives like the ambitious RCEP and the enormous “One Belt, One Road” program. China hopes that by investing in infrastructure projects that can help expand its global trade it can increase its economic reach while also bolstering its image. Beijing has spoken of spending $890 billion on “One Belt, One Road,” with $40 billion already committed.
But China faces serious obstacles to successfully rebranding itself as an avatar of liberalism. When the London-based consultancy firm Portland Communications released a survey measuring the soft power of 30 countries, China came in dead last despite its efforts to improve its image. The primary obstacle is the obvious one: China wants to be embraced by the liberal West without actually being a very liberal country. As China scholar Bill Bishop put its “How can you win hearts and minds when you are known as a country that blocks Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter?” The fact is that China’s government is still an authoritarian regime, which makes it hard for China to earn soft power. Most people do not admire censorship of the press or suppression of dissent.
Even on economics, the subject of Xi’s latest big push, China will have a hard time posing as a credible leader for liberal values because China continues to routinely practice protectionism at home. China famously and routinely violates other countries’ intellectual property, subsidizes domestic industry to undermine foreign competitors, and blocks foreigners from directly investing in certain Chinese industries. China can’t credibly claim to lead the way for trade liberalization if it doesn’t practice what it preaches and it won’t boost its soft power by setting expectations for how it will behave on trade that it has no intention of meeting.
Nor is China well positioned to defend freedom of trade given its poor record on freedom of navigation. China’s actions in the South China Sea include making maritime claims such as the nine-dash line that have no basis in international law. Freedom of navigation is inherently bound up in freedom of trade. China’s insistence that it has the right to exclude others from the South China Sea undermines the credibility of any claim that it is defending the liberal world order.
Xi’s defense of globalization is certainly appreciated but it is unlikely to lead to a meaningful increase in China’s soft power until people around the world see China further open up its economy and its political system. Because the kind of reforms that would win over public opinion overseas would carry serious political risks at home they are extremely unlikely to be undertaken any time soon. For this reason, Xi is likely to find that increasing China’s international prestige by becoming a defender of the liberal order is far easier said than done.
John Ford is a Captain in the U.S. Army JAG Corps who studied at Peking University. He has previously written for The Diplomat on China’s economy and its maritime disputes in the South China Sea. The views expressed here are his own. You can follow him at @johndouglasford on twitter.