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(Con): China Soft Power Good Answers

(Con): China Soft Power Good Answers

China’s soft power isn’t attractive

Herr, April 2019, Richard Herr OAM is the academic director of the parliamentary law, practice and procedure course in the Faculty of Law at the University of Tasmania. He has served as a consultant on regional architecture to the governments of the Pacific Islands on various occasions since 1976. Professor Herr has held visiting positions in Fiji, Hawaii and New Caledonia and the USSR, including the posts of Honorary Director of the Centre for International and Regional Affairs at the University of Fiji and Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University, Chinese Influence in the Pacific Islands: The Ying and Yang of Soft Power, https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2019-04/SR%20138%20Chinese%20influence%20in%20the%20Pacific%20Islands.pdf?REcvDAV_IetxosBsq7rjhZNDv43Y34xV

A key asset in Western soft power has been the universality of the shared values that leading Western states espouse domestically and abroad. They have set the principles and standards for international governance and the global economic system for the contemporary world order. This is something of a practical problem for the PRC in its quest to promote an international narrative that gives Beijing a central role in reshaping the global order. The Sinocentricity of Xi’s cultural soft-power approach doesn’t convey recognised universal values and processes, at least at present, that other states can adopt as their own. It also tends to reinforce the bilateralism of China’s approach to international relations. China’s authoritarian political system doesn’t serve as a model for political reform at either the popular or elite levels of Pacific societies. This is a significant soft-power liability, as emulation is a core component of the concept of soft power. By contrast, democratic values are intuitively supported at the grassroots level across the region even as some countries wrestle with nation-building or with localising democratic values culturally. For example, when Fiji considered its political options after the 2006 military coup, there was an early consensus that a responsible-government form of parliamentary democracy was the only realistic option. Such was the strength of soft-power values that, even though other systems were considered, retooling public thinking was deemed too difficult to make any other political option viable. A similar criticism might be made of the attractiveness of the PRC’s economic system as an exportable model. The Chinese economy has attracted international admiration for its strength and technological innovativeness. And, as far as the Pacific Islands are concerned, China’s role as a source of economic assistance for development is a primary soft-power asset. However, the Chinese economic model doesn’t attract international acolytes the way, for example, the Japanese management model did in the 1970s. In this sense, the soft-power attraction of the Chinese economy is almost one-dimensional. Even if Xi’s trillion-dollar BRI succeeds, it won’t create new global economic values so much as move China towards the centre of a refocused world economy The elite-to-elite bias in Chinese public diplomacy serves as a significant tactical distinction between the Chinese and Western approaches to soft power. Western liberalism favours people-to-people ties and civil society relationships, reflecting the importance of those links to democratic values. Given that the Chinese political system itself is not open, the PRC couldn’t use the same lens that Western states use to view their soft-power assets. China currently lacks the civil society and domestic infrastructure to pursue a ground-up approach to soft power. Indeed, Xi’s government so distrusts civil society and non-government organisations (NGOs) that it has moved to regulate them as subversive.52 China’s lack of openness and civil society linkages is arguably a soft-power deficit that contributes to suspicion of the PRC’s state-focused aid as ‘political’ rather than humanitarian among non-government actors in the Pacific.53 Additionally, in a region known for its religiosity, China’s approach to the Catholic Church, Uygur Muslims and Falun Gong adherents works against the sort of transnational religious associations that connect the peoples of the Pacific to communities of faith elsewhere. Government censorship and political attitudes even serve to undermine the PRC’s attempts to promote Chinese popular culture as a platform for developing popular approval for and engagement with Chinese culture, which is a key focus for China’s soft-power strategy.54

Turn: Expansion of perceived debt trapping policies undermines soft power

Herr, April 2019, Richard Herr OAM is the academic director of the parliamentary law, practice and procedure course in the Faculty of Law at the University of Tasmania. He has served as a consultant on regional architecture to the governments of the Pacific Islands on various occasions since 1976. Professor Herr has held visiting positions in Fiji, Hawaii and New Caledonia and the USSR, including the posts of Honorary Director of the Centre for International and Regional Affairs at the University of Fiji and Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University, Chinese Influence in the Pacific Islands: The Ying and Yang of Soft Power, https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2019-04/SR%20138%20Chinese%20influence%20in%20the%20Pacific%20Islands.pdf?REcvDAV_IetxosBsq7rjhZNDv43Y34xV

The meme of the ‘debt trap’ is perhaps the only popularly recognised Chinese soft-power liability in the Pacific Islands. The negative imagery is understood at both an intuitive and a visceral level even where there might not be hard evidence justifying it. The critical aspect of the debt-trap meme is that it conveys a malign intent that suggests deliberate ensnarement. It portrays Chinese aid less as deliberate assistance to meet real needs and more as some Faustian bargain for the ‘soul’ (sovereignty) of the Pacific states through a sticky-power entanglement with geopolitical consequences.58 The reality of a Chinese debt-trap strategy has been more posited than debated by its proponents over the past two years. The primary empirical example of loan indebtedness was a deliberate Chinese ploy to take over Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka.59 When Sri Lanka was unable to meet its repayments, China negotiated a 99-year lease on the facility and a 70% controlling stake in its management for a state-owned enterprise. Although debt-for-equity loans in Africa and elsewhere are reported,60 virtually every news story promoting the debt-trap thesis in the Pacific Islands starts and ends with Hambantota, despite evidence from the Maldives61 and Malaysia.62 The regional media has covered this concern largely by reissuing Western reportage rather than by adding local evidence or nuance. Vanuatu’s Foreign Minister, Ralph Regenvanu, made an attempt to add some balance to the issue by releasing contract details to demonstrate that there were no debt equity clauses in the contentious Luganville wharf project loan.63 However, critics of the continuing media myopia on this subject both within the region64 and in Australia65 can only express exasperation that easy sensationalism overrides genuine issues about Chinese aid in the Pacific Islands. Although China disputes the details of the Hambantota story, there’s some acknowledgement that serious damage has been done in the court of public opinion.66 Whether there’s a deliberate ‘trap’ or not, many Pacific Island countries are confronted with the ‘debt’ aspect of Chinese concessional loans. Consequently, China continues to have to struggle with the optics of the issue. Tongan Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva, expressing fears that China would seize Tongan assets if his country couldn’t make loan repayments, called on his regional colleagues to join him in an appeal to China to forgive their loan debts.67 His plea failed to move either fellow regional foreign ministers or China. Nevertheless, the appeal put the issue of a Chinese debt trap back into the public domain again, reinforcing the negative soft-power meme regionally. Regardless of its validity, the debt-trap imagery is an issue for more than just Beijing. It presents regional governments with public opinion headaches as well. A primary reason is anxiety over potential voter backlash, given the level of public awareness of the phrase if not its meaning. The Cook Islands opposition party made fear of loan repayments an issue in the June 2018 national election. Sitiveni Rabuka, the leader of the SODELPA opposition party, made Chinese ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ an issue in the November 2018 Fijian general election.68 A related factor is the second negative element captured by the debt-trap meme. This is the implication that the trap has been baited with projects that have been status projects, unproductive, poorly provided, or any combination of the three. Australia’s then International Development Minister, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, famously accused China of funding ‘useless’ buildings and roads that didn’t ‘go anywhere’.69 While it wasn’t intended to do so, her attack cast a poor light on the capacity of the region’s leadership to deal with China. Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele seized on the implication. He responded, ‘To me the comments seem to question the integrity, wisdom and intelligence of the leaders of the Pacific Islands. Graeme Dobell is a Journalist Fellow of ASPI. A journalist for 47 years, he has been reporting on Australian and international politics, foreign affairs, defence and the Asia–Pacific since 1975. Graeme worked as a reporter for the ABC for 33 years, 25 of them with Radio Australia.

BRI’s debt traps and corruption undermining China’s soft power

Balding, October 24, 2018, CHRISTOPHER BALDING is Associate Professor at the Fulbright University of Vietnam and a contributor to Bloomberg View., Why Democracies Are Turning Against Belt and Road, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-10-24/why-democracies-are-turning-against-belt-and-road

Today, however, China faces a backlash to BRI at home and abroad. Many Chinese complain of the initiative’s wasteful spending. Internationally, some of the backlash is geopolitical, as countries grow wary of Beijing’s growing influence. But much of it is simply political. Unlike Western lenders, China does not require its partners to meet stringent conditions related to corruption, human rights, or financial sustainability. This no-strings approach to investment has fueled corruption while allowing governments to burden their countries with unpayable debts. And citizens of many BRI countries have reacted with anger toward China—an anger that is now making itself felt in elections. Far from expanding Chinese soft power, the BRI appears to be achieving the opposite Although Chinese leaders have given some thought to how they might improve the perceptions of BRI in partner countries, there is little evidence that they grasp the financial and political realities driving the backlash. Lending in U.S. dollars forces the recipient countries to run dollar surpluses in order to repay Chinese loans, but many countries lack the capacity to run such surpluses. Many of the investments are long-term infrastructure projects, which can take years to complete and require Chinese banks to roll over debt, but Beijing has demonstrated that it expects to be repaid on time or will take punitive measures, as it did in Sri Lanka. Finally, many BRI countries operate under government systems that allow citizens to voice their displeasure, whether through the press or the ballot box. Unused to democratic oversight and criticism, China is struggling to sell its soft power initiative in places where it cannot simply hide embarrassing or inconvenient details.

 

China’s human rights problems block its soft power

Elizabeth Economy, Council on Foreign Relations, 2018, The Third Revolution:: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State,

On June 1, 2016, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi went viral. Standing before the Canadian press corps with Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion, Wang answered a question that had been asked of and answered by Dion. The politically sensitive question concerned Chinese human rights and the case of a Canadian citizen detained in China since 2014 on espionage charges. Displaying distinctly undiplomatic behavior, Wang attacked the reporter, angrily stating: “Your question is full of prejudice and against China and arrogance . . . I don’t know where that comes from. This is totally unacceptable . . . other people don’t know better than the Chinese people about the human rights condition in China, and it is the Chinese people who are in the best situation, in the best position to have a say about China’s human rights situation.”150 Even as China’s economy and military assume world-class status, its political system hinders its quest for soft power throughout much of the rest of the world. Wang’s outburst speaks not to the question posed by the reporter, a form of which is asked at many official news conferences, but rather to the challenge China faces in moving the international narrative beyond its focus on issues of human rights and China’s repressive political system. Despite China’s best efforts, its quest for soft power remains elusive. Economy, Elizabeth C.. The Third Revolution (pp. 218-219). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

China’s soft power is limited because its model is inapplicable

Elizabeth Economy, Council on Foreign Relations, 2018, The Third Revolution:: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State,

At a fundamental level, China’s efforts to promote soft power are hampered by the nature of its political system. At the 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping proposed China as a model for other countries to emulate, for the first time directly        challenging the United States and other liberal democracies as the political ideal. Yet it is not clear what precisely constitutes China’s political model and whether other countries that are not led by a communist or otherwise authoritarian dictatorship can effectively follow China’s example. Moreover, as Wang Jisi has argued, China’s internal problems, including economic inequality, environmental pollution, and the lack of the rule of law, constrain the appeal of a China model. He notes that the best way for China to improve its soft power is to improve itself, and if China pushes too hard, it will trigger a backlash from other countries.161 Economy, Elizabeth C.. The Third Revolution (p. 221). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

China does not have the political infrastructure to project soft power

Elizabeth Economy, Council on Foreign Relations, 2018, The Third Revolution:: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State,

Underlying Wang’s relatively negative assessment of China’s soft power is also an understanding that soft power traditionally emerges organically—from values and ideals, from popular brands identified with a certain country, and from a nation’s cultural achievements. To be persuasive, they also need to reflect the reality of the country. The repressive nature of China’s current political system, as well as its societal problems, limits its appeal globally. Its contemporary culture is also constrained by political restrictions. The still underdeveloped and under-resourced civil society sector in China further means that China does not gain soft-power value from Chinese environmental, public health, or service-oriented international NGOs that operate in the developing world. And while, over time, Chinese brands may well hold global appeal, to date, only Economy, Elizabeth C.. The Third Revolution (pp. 221-222). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Many barriers to China becoming a global power

Elizabeth Economy, Council on Foreign Relations, 2018, The Third Revolution:: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State,

Xi Jinping seeks greatness for China. It is embodied in his call for the rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation. The trappings are there: a world-class military, a game-changing economy with world-class technology, and a global footprint that matches—and perhaps even exceeds—that of any other country. Yet, Xi’s quest remains largely unrealized. He has established institutions such as the AIIB and BRI with China in a position of Economy, leadership, but their value and import have yet to be realized. His efforts at soft power have largely fallen flat as a result of the inability of China’s political system to present a set of social norms, political values, and cultural dynamism that attracts large segments of the world’s population. Positive steps to build an economic community in Asia are undermined by aggressive military actions in the region. And, as this chapter has argued, true responsibility, along the lines Winston Churchill describes, largely eludes Xi Jinping’s China. Economy, Elizabeth C.. The Third Revolution (p. 229). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

China not ready to replace the benefits of US leadership

Elizabeth Economy, Council on Foreign Relations, 2018, The Third Revolution:: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State,

While President Trump preaches “America First” and withdraws from international accords, President Xi calls for win-win solutions and defends the shared benefits of globalization. The contrasting rhetoric of presidents Trump and Xi makes it   easy to jump to the conclusion, as many analysts have, that as the United States withdraws from global leadership, China stands ready to take its place. Yet that would be a mistake. The United States may well be taking a step back from its willingness to lead the way on addressing the world’s many challenges, but China is not prepared to replace it. Global leadership requires a willingness to subordinate one’s own narrow interests for the benefit of the larger community. It also means stepping forward to forge an international consensus on thorny global issues such as terrorism or the Syrian refugee crisis. When put to the test, however, China has not yet stepped up to the plate. The vacuum left by the Trump administration’s step back from global leadership on refugees was filled by Canada and   Germany; on regional trade, by Japan and Australia; and on family planning services, by the Netherlands. Even in China’s own backyard—addressing North Korea’s nuclear proliferation or managing the refugee crisis in Myanmar—China has not yet put forward a workable solution. China’s leadership globally is largely confined to those issues where its interests are easily advanced, such as economic development through the BRI or security cooperation to prevent terrorist attacks or democratic revolutions through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Nonetheless, with Xi Jinping at the helm, China has become a transformative power—reversing the previous thirty years of reform and opening at home and a low-profile foreign policy abroad. China can and should be an important U.S. partner   partner whenever possible. The two countries found common ground on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, and—to an important extent—North Korea. However, on a wide range of issues, such as Internet sovereignty, human rights, sovereignty claims over the South and East China Seas, as well as Taiwan, and trade and investment practices, among others, U.S. and Chinese priorities, policies, and values are not aligned. Moreover, China cannot be a leader in a globalized world while at the same time closing its borders to ideas, capital, and influences from the outside world. The United States, in partnership with its allies and other partners, must continue to seek opportunities for cooperation but at the same time be prepared to counter and confront China .