Chinese influence – whether “soft power” or “sharp power” – is attracting increasing attention from around the world. There’s a general consensus that China’s government is boosting its attempts to make friends and influence people, particularly within its immediate neighborhood. But what tools is China using in its efforts – and most importantly, is it working?
These are the difficult questions tackled by a new report from AidData, a research lab at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. The report, “The Ties That Bind: Quantifying China’s public diplomacy and its ‘good neighbor’ effect,” seeks to quantify China’s public diplomacy efforts in East Asia and the Pacific, as well as the impact in recipient countries.
One of the most important findings is that China uses a variety of tools to bolster its image and influence the policies of other countries. In popular imagination, Chinese influence often translates to one thing: money. But investment is not the end-all, be-all of Chinese public diplomacy efforts.
As Samantha Custer, lead author of the report and director of AidData’s Policy Analysis Unit, said in an email to The Diplomat, “One of the things that has not featured in previous discussions is the diversity of China’s public diplomacy. We discovered China has tailored its strategy for different receiving countries based on local factors such as internet penetration, the size of Chinese diaspora and popular discontent.” The report categorizes China’s public diplomacy efforts into five categories: informational diplomacy (the Chinese media presence overseas, for instance), cultural diplomacy (Confucius Institutes and cultural events), exchange diplomacy (study abroad programs and sister cities), financial diplomacy (loans and grants), and elite-to-elite diplomacy (high-level visits and exchanges).
According to the report, China is aiming its strongest public diplomacy efforts at developed countries: “Japan, South Korea, and Australia attract the highest volume and most diverse set of inbound Chinese public diplomacy activities.” Notably, however, these countries do not receive the loans and grants that are the hallmark of Chinese public diplomacy efforts in the popular imagination.
Financial diplomacy, however, is a substantial part of China’s outreach to the next tier of recipient countries, which includes Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand. And Chinese financial diplomacy nearly always translates to investment in infrastructure: “In the East Asia and Pacific region, AidData estimates Beijing spent more than US$48 billion between 2000-2016.” $45.8 billion of that (or 95 percent) was in infrastructure investments.
The remaining East Asia and Pacific countries covered in the study – the remaining members of ASEAN, New Zealand, Mongolia, Fiji, and the Pacific Islands – receive “substantially less” engagement from China. What public diplomacy they do see also includes far less variation, 90 percent, “the lion’s share,” of Chinese outreach to these smaller states is “elite-to-elite diplomacy.”
Despite the diversity of China’s efforts, the focus on Chinese investment is understandable, given that it seems to attract the most attention in the recipient countries as well. The report includes three case studies – of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Fiji — based on interviews with government officials, business and civil society leaders, and academics. In each of these countries, Chinese investment was most on the minds of interviewees. Whether that’s to China’s benefit (by encouraging the public to see China as helpful and wealthy) or detriment (by fanning fears over debt traps and loss of sovereignty) is the million-dollar question.
The case studies also point to a divergence in elite versus popular perceptions of China, a result of Chinese public diplomacy efforts disproportionately targeting high-level political and military officials. In the Philippines, Malaysia, and Fiji alike, China has forged deep relationships with government figures, while the public has varying degrees of skepticism about what this means for their country. This is particularly notable in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte’s enthusiastic embrace of China has buy-in from political elites, but not average Filipinos. China seems aware of this, though, and according to AidData’s interviews is stepping up people-to-people diplomacy, including student exchanges and cultural events in the Philippines.
The possible downside of a strategy overly dependent on elites is that Chinese engagement could become politicized – meaning a successor government might purposefully seek to keep Beijing at a distance for domestic gains. This possibility will be put to the test in Malaysia, where the new government might scale back China’s previous public diplomacy gains. “For better or worse,” the report notes, “perceptions of China are very much linked to how political elites view outgoing [Malaysian] Prime Minister Najib.”
What are the actual impacts of China’s public diplomacy in terms of either fostering positive perceptions of China or influencing foreign governments to make policy decisions in line with Chinese interests? Here things are less certain, as measuring political influence is tricky business. AidData does note a correlation that could point to some success: “Respondents in countries exposed to a higher volume of Beijing’s financial diplomacy and official visits were more likely to view China as having the best development model and as a positive force in their countries.”
However, correlation is not causation. This may be evidence that China’s public diplomacy is making gains, but it might also mean that China is targeting its efforts where it know they will be well-received – in effect, rewarding partners that already welcome China. There may also be what AidData calls “a self-selection bias” on the part of recipient countries when it comes to accepting Chinese public diplomacy. For instance, the report notes that it’s possible “countries that are already more favorable to China are more likely to accept Confucius Institutes than those that have less positive views.”
The report also notes a correlation between elite and cultural diplomacy and policy decisions by the recipient government. As Custer put it, “The more official visits and Confucius Institutes a country received, the more likely they were to vote with China [at the United Nations General Assembly].”
Here again, however, the causation could be reversed: China could be showering countries that already back its policy positions with attention rather than successfully enticing recipient countries to support its interest. Indeed, support for China’s position may predate Beijing’s public diplomacy, as was the case in Malaysia:
According to interviewees, Malaysia largely “respect[s] China’s policies around the world,” limiting engagement with Taiwan, supporting the One China policy, and avoiding criticism of China on core issues like Tibet or Xinjiang. However, these positions have long been a part of Malaysia’s foreign policy stance and predate the ramping up of China’s public diplomacy efforts.
Clearly there’s a lot more room for research, as the report itself notes. In addition to resolving the central question of establishing a causal link between China’s public diplomacy and the response in a receiving country, AidData calls for further research on informational diplomacy (which the report did not cover in detail, due to difficulties in accessing data from Chinese state-owned media in time to use in this study). There’s also obviously scope for expanding the geographical reach of the study, using the same metrics to explore Chinese influence in other regions: South Asia, say (where concerns about Chinese investment and influence mirror some of the ones raised in AidData’s case studies) or even farther afield, in Africa or Europe.
But for foreign governments concerned about the rise in Chinese public diplomacy, one point from the report bears repeating: growing Chinese influence relates not only to China’s stepped-up efforts, but retreat by other powers, especially the United States, Japan, and Australia. As China increases its public diplomacy, other states are winding theirs down, and thus magnifying the effect of all China’s efforts.