Beijing’s Expensive Public Diplomacy in Asia Yields Mixed Results: Report

December 15, 2019 Updated: December 15, 2019
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The Chinese regime has been investing billions to woo its Asian neighbors, but the results so far have not been as favorable for Beijing as desired, according to a Dec. 10 think tank study.

In the period of six years, the Chinese regime doubled its foreign ministry budget from 30 billion yuan ($4.26 billion) to 60 billion yuan ($8.52 billion) in a bid to bolster its global image.

Beijing also invested an estimated $126 billion across 13 countries in the South and Central region between 2000 and 2017, the bulk of which—$120 billion—went into infrastructure building, according to the study by AidData, a Virginia-based research lab at the College of William & Mary. Around 5 percent was spent on humanitarian aid, budget support, and debt relief.

The findings of the study was based on more than 200 interviews with government officials, academics, journalists, foreign diplomats, and other prominent individuals in the region.

“Public diplomacy is a critical ingredient in Beijing’s toolkit to neutralise potential threats, overcome internal disadvantages, and outmanoeuvre regional competitors who could vie with the Chinese government for influence,” the report stated.

Financial Diplomacy

The collection of instruments from Beijing’s “public diplomacy toolkit” include controversial Confucius Institutes—state-sponsored classrooms in overseas universities that promote a positive image of the regime, as well as sister cities, scholarships, diplomatic visits, military diplomacy, government loans, and state-run media operations.

“Beijing’s aspirations may be global, but it takes a special interest in cultivating closer relations with China’s ‘greater periphery,’” the report said. It noted that “convincing [South and Central Asian] leaders to align with it in international decision-making bodies is also critical for the Chinese government to project strength when it comes to crucial votes on its priority issues.”

Two countries that captured more than half of the $126 billion in financial investment were Pakistan and Kazakhstan, both key partners in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also known as One Belt One Road, OBOR), the Chinese regime’s trillion-dollar infrastructure financing project.

Beijing also stepped up diplomatic efforts to “present its version of the story” and suppress negative publicity. The study found that with the exception of Tajikistan and Bhutan, every country in the region hosts at least one form of Chinese state-controlled media, such as China Radio International, broadcaster CCTV, newspapers Xinhua or China Daily.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese embassies organized 61 exchange trips for South and Central Asian journalists between 2004 and 2017. Interviews with journalists who participated or have knowledge of such trips “repeatedly mentioned that the Chinese hosts footed the entire bill (or at least heavily subsidized the costs),” according to the report.

On student exchange, the number of international students in China jumped by ten fold to 500,000 between 2000 and 2018, while the number of government scholarships to foreign students also rose by 12 times. Those from the South and Central Asia received a total of 10,000 scholarships from Chinese authorities.

‘Mixed Feelings’

Despite the substantial amount of financial and human resources invested by Beijing to win favor with the South and Central Asian leaders and citizens, the activities “may not be equally well suited to realize the gains it hopes for,” the report said.

Concerns over corruption, debt distress, and lack of transparency have continued to fuel public debate in the region, while the overtures have led to lower public opinions of the Chinese leadership.

In Kazakhstan, the “buckle” for China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, the public is “generally skeptical of Beijing” due to a distrust of Chinese investment, Beijing’s mistreatment of Muslim minorities, and fear of potential influx of Chinese migrants.

The regime’s role as an economic partner has also aroused “mixed feelings,” likely because the offer is often binding with use of Chinese firms and labors, “with limited trickle-down to the local economy.”

Beijing’s inroads with ordinary citizens in the region is “superficial at best,” with the strongest asset being its “economic clout, rather than the intrinsic appeal of its culture, language, or values,” the study found. It noted, nonetheless, that the press briefings and op-eds of senior officials, as well as Confucius Institutes, have correlated to more favorable public opinions towards Chinese leaders.

“Interviewees often described Beijing’s engagement with the general public as minimal and said that people in their country primarily thought of China in the context of large-scale infrastructure projects like roads, railways, ports, and power plants,” it said.

Despite the willingness of the countries to accept Chinese money, the researchers found no indication of increased public endorsement of Beijing’s stance on contentious issues nor higher voting alignment at the United Nations General Assembly.

“Even among leaders who are generally enthusiastic about partnering with Beijing … there is a growing refrain that they want to avoid over dependence on any one financial partner,” it said, citing various factors at play such as emphasis on political autonomy, public relations pressure, and negotiation leverage.

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