The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Samantha Custer, the director of policy analysis at AidData, a research lab at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, is the 305th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
Identify the three topline takeaways of AidData’s “Corridors of Power” report.
First, Beijing’s economic statecraft and soft power are most formidable when they are employed in concert. Over nearly two decades, the Chinese government bankrolled $127 billion in financial assistance to South and Central Asian countries. These economic overtures are an important driver for countries to seek closer ties with China. Leaders view Beijing as the most likely partner on public infrastructure projects. Citizens see China as improving their livelihood prospects through jobs, capital, and connections. In tandem, Beijing doubled down on soft power overtures via education, culture, exchanges, and media to foster people-to-people ties with students and professionals. These efforts are important avenues to cultivate future markets for Chinese goods, services, and capital.
Second, Chinese leaders focused the lion’s share of their overtures on an elite club of strategically important communities. Sixty-two percent of China’s financial assistance went to only 25 provinces. Three provinces – Sindh and Punjab in Pakistan and Mary in Turkmenistan – received more money from Beijing than seven of the region’s 13 countries. This dynamic is not limited to economics alone. Sixteen priority cities, such as Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan and Kathmandu in Nepal, accounted for over half of Beijing’s city-level diplomacy aimed at fostering people-to-people ties. Populous and energy rich districts were most likely to receive Chinese financing, while capital cities and large metropolises received more cultural diplomacy.
Third, Beijing’s ability to convert economic and soft power potential into realized influence is easier said than done. China’s ability to connect with its desired target audiences on Twitter is contingent on a relatively small number of brokers – most often politicians and journalists in South Asia and government agencies in Central Asia. Beijing’s financial diplomacy and high-level state visits generated mixed results: garnering higher approval in some countries, but not others. Citizens across the region were more favorable towards Russia and China, but their leaders preferred the U.S. and India.
Describe Beijing’s influence playbook in South and Central Asia.
In six countries, Chinese leaders more heavily emphasized economic ties with local communities that shared two commonalities: strategic positioning to Beijing’s envisioned overland or maritime trade routes and access to ready supplies of energy via oil, natural gas or hydropower potential. These countries included Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. By contrast, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka also received financial diplomacy, but Beijing relied on education, culture, and exchange programs to a greater extent to foster people-to-people ties and improve perceptions of China.
In its bid to become a premier study abroad destination, China offers less burdensome visa requirements than its competitors, numerous scholarships, English language curricula, and new training modalities. Afghanistan appears to be a particular priority for Beijing’s educational overtures: 23 percent of Afghan students who studied in China did so on state-backed scholarships, the highest subsidy in the region.
Chinese leaders have also practiced city-level diplomacy to cultivate relationships with public and private sector leaders at the local level. In the report, we identified 193 touchpoints between the Chinese government and 174 cities across the region, from Confucius Institutes and Mandarin language testing centers to sister city agreements and content-sharing partnerships between Chinese and local media. Beijing’s network of Confucius Institutes and Classrooms alone has surpassed comparable institutions from Russia, India, and the U.K., and is second only to the U.S. in number across the region.
How is Beijing using social media in public diplomacy?
Social media is a new frontier for people-to-people diplomacy. Chinese leaders have increasingly – and controversially – harnessed tools such as Twitter abroad to amplify narratives they prefer and contest those which run counter to their interest. However, Beijing’s network power is limited in South and Central Asia. Chinese leaders rely heavily on centralized state-run media and diplomatic accounts to push out positive stories about China and counter criticism, but with the exception of Pakistan, these Twitter accounts are followed and mentioned by relatively few of the region’s elites.
Analyze perceptions of South and Central Asian publics and political elites toward Chinese soft power. How do these perceptions compare with those toward the United States?
Citizens in Pakistan and Tajikistan had the most consistently favorable views of China between 2006 and 2020, compared to largely unfavorable perceptions in India and middle-of-the-road attitudes elsewhere. Although citizens in South and Central Asia preferred Russia and China, their leaders were more favorable towards India and the U.S. Notably, leaders gave Beijing higher marks than its strategic competitors in one area: they identified China as more effective than its peers in adapting its public diplomacy efforts in the era of COVID-19. Indeed, the pandemic offers an important window into how Beijing wielded economic and soft power tools as a force multiplier to overcome criticism and gain favorability with foreign leaders and publics.
Chinese leaders sought to position China as an indispensable partner via well publicized donations of vaccines and medical equipment, provision of medical teams, and regional cooperative efforts on pandemic response. In parallel, Beijing mobilized traditional broadcasting and social media to question the motives and follow-through of strategic competitors. By contrast, the fact that the U.S. was the largest provider of COVID-19 pandemic response grants globally as of June 2020 has not helped it shake negative perceptions in the region that it has mismanaged the crisis at home and abroad.
Assess the foreign policy implications of the report for U.S. policymakers, industry leaders, and NGO stakeholders and Track 2 diplomacy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided new avenues for competition between states jockeying for influence, as well as constraints in using conventional public diplomacy tools. At this critical juncture, we surveyed public, private, and civil society leaders from across the region to hear their views on what foreign powers could do to improve their standing in South and Central Asia over the next four years. Respondents identified two priorities: increase financial assistance, but also strengthen people-to-people ties. This may be easier said than done, as national budgets and policymaker attention is being diverted to respond to domestic pressures of pandemic response, social inequality, and economic turbulence.
To counter Beijing’s influence or consolidate their own, China’s strategic competitors may need to be disciplined in doing more with less in light of financial and political constraints. As a starting point, policymakers should pay particular attention to blunting Beijing’s efforts to cultivate narrow but deep influence within a small subset of strategically important communities: populous districts and energy rich communities, along with capital cities. They may also expand their own influence by brokering public-private partnerships with companies, universities, and non-governmental organizations to crowd in resources and expertise to strengthen economic and social ties with countries throughout the region.