New report on Beijing's efforts to cultivate influence amidst rival powers in South and Central Asia

AidData today released an extensive new study on China's public diplomacy efforts to win over foreign leaders and publics along the Silk Road, in what Beijing considers its “greater periphery.”

December 13, 2021
Sarina Patterson
In November 2020, the leaders of Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states (including China, India, Pakistan, and Russia) held a meeting via video conference. Photo from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, under fair use.

In November 2020, the leaders of Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states (including China, India, Pakistan, and Russia) held a meeting via video conference. Photo from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, under fair use.

China has long viewed South and Central Asian countries as a strategic priority, where building relationships and winning goodwill are vital to securing its economic, geopolitical, and security interests. AidData, a research lab at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute, today released an extensive new study on Chinese public diplomacy efforts in the region, ranging from financing and education to culture and social media, that seek to win over foreign leaders and publics in what Beijing considers its “greater periphery.”

Explore maps and findings from the report.

The Corridors of Power report, accompanied by an interactive dashboard, analyzes Beijing's efforts to cultivate and deepen economic, social, and network ties with 13 countries in South and Central Asia (SCA) over two decades.

These ties foster interdependence with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that have the potential to both empower and constrain SCA countries, while threatening to displace or diminish the influence of regional rivals such as Russia, India, and the United States.

The authors marshaled a robust set of data to inform contemporary debates about Beijing’s multi-dimensional influence playbook and how citizens respond to great powers jockeying for primacy in the region.

Read the full report and executive summary.

The report examines how the PRC has deployed $127 billion in financial diplomacy to sway popular opinion and leader behavior over an 18 year period. This state-directed financing includes both aid (i.e., grants and concessional loans) and debt (i.e., non-concessional loans approaching market rates) in four categories of assistance visible to foreign publics (infrastructure financing, humanitarian aid) and prized by foreign leaders (budget support, debt relief).

The new research finds that Beijing does not distribute attention equally—beyond national boundaries, the PRC clearly views some communities as more strategically important to advancing its interests than others. According to the authors, Beijing is employing three distinct subnational public diplomacy strategies, varying its engagement to best advance specific economic, security, and geopolitical goals.

China’s financial diplomacy is indeed highly concentrated: the report finds that Beijing focuses the lion’s share of its largesse to just 25 provinces (receiving 62 percent of financing) and 25 districts (receiving 41 percent of financing) in the region. More populous districts and those with natural gas pipelines are the most likely recipients of these dollars, and Pakistan’s shipping corridors and pipelines attract nearly one-third of all of China’s financial diplomacy across SCA countries, fostering economic ties with local, national, and regional implications.

While China is best known for the power of its purse, the authors argue that Beijing’s economic and soft power tools may be most formidable in exerting influence with countries when they are employed hand-in-hand. The report acknowledges that the more that SCA publics and elites build closer people-to-people ties with counterparts in China, the more they may turn to these social networks when it comes to sourcing goods, services, capital, and other economic partnerships.

And Beijing appears to be stepping up its game: while Russia, India, and the US have a longer-standing presence, AidData finds that China now accounts for 30 percent of language and cultural institutions in the region, only surpassed by the US. Beijing has cultivated 193 central-to-local or local-to-local ties with 174 cities across the SCA region, but over half of all ties (52 percent) were focused on just 16 priority cities.

However, the authors note that Beijing’s ability to convert public diplomacy inputs into realized influence is easier said than done. Although citizens in the region held relatively more favorable attitudes towards Russia and China, their leaders favored India and the US. Yet, leaders gave higher marks to China in one respect: its ability to adapt its public diplomacy most effectively in the era of COVID-19, at least relative to its regional competitors for influence.

Visualize new data on China’s soft power in our updated dashboard.

This analysis was enabled by a unique dataset on China's economic and soft power tools. AidData plans to make this data publicly available later this week for researchers, economists, policymakers and journalists interested in China's foreign aid and development diplomacy.

AidData’s interactive China’s Public Diplomacy Dashboard has also been updated, allowing users to create and export visualizations and maps with the latest, comprehensive data on China’s soft power toolkit (download the full dataset here). Data for 39 countries in the Asia-Pacific (including 13 in South and Central Asia) is available covering the years 2000-2018.

For the first time, users can visualize China’s financial diplomacy—arguably its most visible and controversial tool of public diplomacy—at the province and district level for countries in South and Central Asia. Data on cultural, exchange, informational, and elite-to-elite diplomacy is also available at the country level (and in some cases subnationally) for nearly 40 countries.

Register for events launching the report (Dec 14, Dec 14, Dec 16).

Three events early this week will launch the new report and provide a venue for researchers, policymakers, practitioners, and journalists to explore the findings, methods and implications.

On December 14th, at 3am EST/14:00 Bishkek time (GMT+6), a launch event and panel discussion focused on Central Asia will be held in-person at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, as well as via Zoom. Speakers include the report authors from AidData, the director of the OSCE Academy, and experts from the Carnegie Moscow Center, the Eurasian Association for International Studies, and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. 

Also on December 14th, at 8am EST/7pm Almaty time (UTC+6), a second event will be held via Zoom on 30 Years of Kazakhstan: From the USSR to China’s Belt and Road. Held on the occasion of Kazakhstan’s 30th anniversary of independence, in partnership with William & Mary’s AidData, the Whole of Government Center of Excellence, and KIMEP University, the panel discussion will focus on China’s growing presence in Central Asia and Kazakhstan. Speakers include experts on China, Russia, and Central Asia from Harvard University, Montclair State University, University of Glasgow, University of Helsinki, as well as a journalist and a former Kazakh ministry official.

Finally, on December 16th, from 8:30-10am EST, a third launch event and panel discussion focused on South Asia will be held via Zoom, hosted by William & Mary’s AidData and the Whole of Government Center of Excellence. Guest speakers include a former Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisor, celebrated journalists, and scholars of the Belt and Road Initiative. Participants will get an in-depth look at how Beijing has used a broad and diverse toolkit to cultivate economic and soft power influence in South and Central Asia over the last two decades. The event aims to spark a discussion of what this means moving forward for countries in the region and rival powers such as India, Russia, and the United States.

About AidData

AidData (aiddata.org) is a 30-person research lab at William & Mary that equips policymakers and practitioners with better data and evidence to improve how their sustainable development investments are targeted, monitored, and evaluated. AidData uses rigorous methods, cutting-edge tools, and granular data to answer the question: who is doing what, where, for whom, and to what effect? Its current and recent partners include USAID, the World Bank, the Hewlett Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the McGovern Foundation, and the U.S. Department of State.

AidData manages the most comprehensive and detailed source of project-level information on China’s global development footprint ever assembled. China itself does not publish a project-level, country-by-country breakdown of its foreign aid program. Using an innovative open-source methodology, Tracking Underreported Financial Flows (TUFF), AidData does both. TUFF is a rigorous, replicable methodology that triangulates open-source information to systematically create project-level data detailing official finance originating from opaque donors and lenders. 

For media inquiries, contact: Alex Wooley, Partnerships and Communications Director; awooley@aiddata.org; +1 757-585-9875

Sarina Patterson is AidData's Communications Specialist.