Chinese public diplomacy in East Asia and the Pacific: Is it working?

A new report from AidData chronicles the nature and impact of China’s diplomatic programs.

June 26, 2018
Alex Wooley
Culture ministers representing China (left) and Korea (right) in discussion at the 8th Korea-China-Japan Culture Minister’s Meeting in 2016 in Korea. Photo by Jeon Han/Republic of Korea via Flickr, licensed under (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Culture ministers representing China (left) and Korea (right) in discussion at the 8th Korea-China-Japan Culture Minister’s Meeting in 2016 in Korea. Photo by Jeon Han/Republic of Korea via Flickr, licensed under (CC BY-SA 2.0).

China is spending money throughout the East Asia and Pacific region to secure national interests and win friends. But is it working? The answer, according to a new report by AidData, in collaboration with the Asia Society Policy Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is: “Yes, but it’s complicated.”

Drawing on extensive quantitative and qualitative data, Ties That Bind paints a comprehensive picture of China’s multi-year, forward-leaning strategy across the region, which stretches from Burma/Myanmar to Samoa and from Japan to Australia, covering 27% of the world’s population. Ties That Bind quantifies five instruments of China’s public diplomacy program, from financial investments and official visits targeted towards a country’s elites, to mass-market appeals to citizens via Confucius Institutes, sister cities, and information broadcasting. The report examines how foreign publics and leaders perceive these overtures, and assesses whether they are helping Beijing achieve its objectives.

Explore graphs and interactive charts of China’s public diplomacy activities in 25 countries.

AidData finds that China is increasing and diversifying its public diplomacy efforts, doing so strategically rather than opportunistically, and calibrating its efforts according to a range of factors and circumstances.   

The results are good for China, with caveats. As its footprint grows, the region’s citizens see China as highly influential, and leaders value it as a supply of ready capital—though not as many want to emulate its development model.

“However, a number of factors could threaten these gains: disputes in the South China Sea, the perception that China does not always follow through on its infrastructure promises, and the specter of indebtedness as countries struggle to repay mounting debts to Beijing,” said Samantha Custer, lead author of the report and AidData’s Director of Policy Analysis.

How does China use public diplomacy to advance its foreign interests?

AidData found that countries that represent high-value market opportunities receive more Chinese public diplomacy activities; however, the driving factor is not necessarily overall wealth, but rather openness to Chinese goods, services, and investments.

China is opaque about program details, but its end game is clear: reward countries that consume more of its products, open market opportunities for Chinese firms, sway natural resource ‘gatekeepers,’ legitimize its maritime and territorial claims, and secure support for its foreign policy positions in the United Nations and other international forums. Beijing also seeks to assuage fears that it poses a threat, instead creating an alternative narrative of China as a peaceful, interesting and reliable neighbor.

Headliners like the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative obscure Beijing’s experimentation with a wider set of public diplomacy tools, particularly cultural and exchange programs. Between 2000 and 2018, there was a 115 percent surge in new sister cities between Chinese cities/towns and counterparts in other countries. Meanwhile, Beijing has opened over 500 Confucius Institutes—its signature cultural diplomacy program—in the Asia Pacific region since 2004 to attract interest in Chinese language and culture. This expansion can be traced to the 2013 accession of China’s President Xi Jinping, and with it more active engagement with other countries integral to the “good neighbor” strategy.

Download disaggregated data on measures of Chinese public diplomacy used for this analysis.

“Historically there has been a lack of quantifiable data to assess the volume, location, and ultimate effects of these efforts, with the majority of previous studies relying on qualitative information that provides valuable context-specific insights, but fall short of giving scholars and practitioners a way to systematically analyze the issues,” said Custer. “We took a data-driven approach, challenging in itself given that Beijing does not provide detailed information about its public diplomacy programs.”

AidData finds that China’s infrastructure investments dwarf the rest of its financial diplomacy. In the East Asia and Pacific region, AidData estimates Beijing spent more than US$48 billion between 2000-2016. This includes four categories of funding that are likely the most visible to citizens and leaders, and so are effective “persuaders” of perceptions of China: infrastructure investments ($45.8 billion), humanitarian aid ($273 million), budget support/direct funding to a government ($613 million), and debt relief ($90 million).

What motivates how China tailors its public diplomacy overtures?

Meanwhile, there is one type of financial diplomacy that China uses disproportionately to sway elites in democracies—infrastructure financing for executive, legislative, and judicial government buildings.

Perhaps not surprising given the nature of its regime, Beijing is arguably still most comfortable engaging with political elites rather than publics. In many countries, this has proven to be an effective strategy— in the Philippines, for example, China’s public diplomacy overtures have secured key allies and gains among political elites. But Beijing faces an uphill battle winning over the average Filipino.

“Beijing’s intense focus on courting political and business elites, as well as its emphasis on financial diplomacy, could increase the risk of undue influence with leaders willing to exchange favors for economic gain,” said Custer. “Concerns of this nature have already been raised in Malaysia, Fiji, and the Philippines where AidData undertook case studies, as well as in the media. Transparency and disclosure both by the Chinese government and officials in receiving countries as to amounts and terms of foreign grants or loans which support government activities, as well as any foreign funding received by political candidates, would be helpful.”

See the full report for more findings on the Chinese diplomacy’s downstream effects.

Within the region, China’s closest competitors receive the preponderance of its public diplomacy overtures. Japan, South Korea, and Australia attract the highest volume and most diverse set of inbound Chinese public diplomacy activities, in the shape of sister cities, Confucius Institutes, and official visits. According to Custer, “these countries matter to Beijing because of their ability to undermine or strengthen China’s geostrategic position in light of their economic, diplomatic or military assets. Beijing employs a patient, long-term strategy to export a positive image of itself with business leaders, journalists, students and civil society while it waits for a time when political leaders are more amenable to its views.”

Ironically, the same countries that are target audiences for Beijing’s charm offensive may see their own public diplomacy efforts being displaced. Australia, Japan, and the United States, among others, have long-standing interests in the region which require continued goodwill with foreign publics and access to East Asia and Pacific leaders. Yet case study interviewees spoke of Western countries drawing back their public diplomacy efforts, effectively ceding ground to Beijing.

How effective is China’s public diplomacy?

Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand receive the second highest volume of public diplomacy overtures. Indonesia and Malaysia are important to China due to their large populations and growing economies that make them attractive export markets. Cambodia and Thailand, meanwhile, may be particularly open to China, as they have had more estranged relationships with the West.

On the surface, China engages substantially less with Pacific island countries in terms of the absolute volume of its activities. But China’s public diplomacy engagement per capita in these countries easily outstrips that of Japan and South Korea. According to Custer, “Beijing is particularly interested in winning friends in the Pacific to reduce the number of countries that provide diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. In this respect, it is no surprise that China goes straight to the top in these countries with 90 percent of its public diplomacy engagement taking the form of official visits between high-level leaders.”

Other findings:

  • China has rapidly expanded its international media offerings since the early 2000s across multiple platforms.
  • There has been a proliferation of Confucius Institutes, Confucius Classrooms and sister city agreements. Interviewees pointed to numerous examples of China’s facilitation of a diverse array of exchange programs for both students and professionals (e.g., journalist training, political and military exchanges).
  • Beijing channels a higher volume of its public diplomacy activities towards East Asia and Pacific countries with a larger diaspora presence. However, the effectiveness of this approach is heavily influenced by how the local ethnically-Chinese population is perceived by other ethnicities within those countries.

Despite its affinity for elites, Beijing is attempting to broaden its outreach, doing so to good effect. People in countries that receive more visits from Chinese leaders and a greater share of Beijing’s financial largesse tend to have more positive perceptions of China’s influence and its development model. While Beijing’s Confucius Institutes are a lightning rod for controversy in many countries, AidData finds evidence that people in countries that have a higher share of these institutions also tend to have more favorable perceptions of China’s influence in their countries and the region as a whole.

The report also looks at the relationship between China’s public diplomacy overtures and its ability to secure one of its objectives—alignment with Beijing’s foreign policy positions in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). According to Custer, “Beijing’s relationships with political elites and cultural diplomacy go hand in hand with China’s ability to influence how political leaders vote in international forums. The more official visits and Confucius Institutes a country received, the more likely they were to vote with China.”

She also noted that money talks, but some types more than others. “We found that countries were more likely to back Beijing’s positions in UNGA if they had more of two types of financial diplomacy: concessional development assistance (aid) and infrastructure financing for projects that were less visible to the public (ostensibly the pet projects of leaders).”

How did we quantify China’s public diplomacy?

For Ties That Bind, AidData collected and integrated data across five types of public diplomacy: informational, cultural, exchange, financial, and elite-to-elite diplomacy. Sources included:

  • AidData’s global dataset, based on original data collection of Chinese development finance activities for the period 2000-2016
  • The AsiaBarometer public opinion survey waves for 2010-2012 and 2014-2015.
  • Qualitative interviews by AidData of over 70 government officials, civil society and private sector leaders, academics, journalists, and foreign diplomats in the Philippines, Malaysia and Fiji.
  • Semi-structured interviews with public diplomacy scholars and practitioners.

Custer acknowledged the limitations of the research, which she hopes will serve as a starting point rather than endpoint. “To fully answer the question of whether China’s public diplomacy efforts are achieving its objectives, we would need to be able to speak to the causal relationship between the activities of a sending country with the attitudes and actions of a receiving country. Data limitations mean that we could only identify associations or looser relationships between China’s public diplomacy and overseas public perceptions and decision-making.”

“We see this research report as a catalyst, one that we hope will be widely shared and discussed among academics, governments and their citizens, diplomats, analysts, and which will spark additional lines of scholarly, data-driven inquiry,” Custer said.

Alex Wooley is AidData's Director of Partnerships and Communications.