Interactive Feature

Ties That Bind

Quantifying China's public diplomacy and its "good neighbor" effect

China's Public Diplomacy Toolkit

Which instruments of public diplomacy does China wield in East Asia and the Pacific, and to what effect?

Chinese Official Finance with Diplomatic Intent, 2000-2016

(USD billions, deflated to 2014 Constant USD)

China’s Financial Diplomacy

The world’s second largest economy, China has made headlines for its deep pockets and apparent willingness to use its "power of its purse” as a tool of public diplomacy to improve relations with foreign leaders and citizens. In the East Asia and Pacific region alone, Beijing’s financial diplomacy comes with a hefty price tag: over US$48 billion in committed between 2000-2016, according to our estimates.

This includes four categories of Chinese official finance that are likely most visible to citizens and leaders, such that they could effectively sway perceptions of China: infrastructure investments (US$45.8 billion), humanitarian aid (US$273 million), budget support (US$613 million), and debt relief (US$90 million).

To estimate China’s financial diplomacy footprint, AidData tracked two types of financing vehicles: 

  • Official development assistance (ODA or “aid”), which meets OECD standards that the flow is highly concessional in its terms (i.e., including a grant element of at least 25%); and
  • Other official flows (OOF), which are less concessional and more commercially and representationally oriented.

Source: Ties That Bind.

Official Visits by Country, 2000-2015

China’s Elite-to-Elite Diplomacy

China entertains more visiting dignitaries and elites each year than any other country, while its own leaders travel to receiving countries regularly. In cultivating these relationships, Beijing emphasizes the win-win nature of closer ties to China. In addition to being a ready supply of capital to finance the priority projects of elites, China may enhance the standing of a foreign leader by announcing Beijing’s support for their policies.

Beijing’s reliance on official visits has decreased in recent years, but elite-to-elite diplomacy still accounts for the lion’s share (90%) of its outreach with most of the smaller countries in the region. We also find that wealthier countries that represent high value market opportunities for Beijing also receive more official visits.

Source: Ties That Bind.

Confucius Institutes per Country, 2016

China’s Cultural Diplomacy

Beijing’s signature cultural diplomacy initiative, Confucius Institutes are managed by the Hanban, a public institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education.

China’s aim is to make Mandarin a widely used language worldwide and Confucius Institutes are Beijing’s central distribution mechanism.

In choosing where to deploy its Confucius Institutes, Beijing is strategic in using this public diplomacy in the countries that will be most open to its overtures:

  • Countries with a larger Chinese diaspora and higher levels of domestic unrest tend to receive more Confucius Institutes.
  • Countries that accept more Chinese firms, vote more often with Beijing in the UN General Assembly, and have fewer militarized disputes with China also receive more Confucius Institutes.

Source: Ties That Bind.

Chinese Sister Cities per Country, 2016

China’s Exchange Diplomacy

Sister cities “twin” a Chinese city, town, or province with a foreign counterpart. China has brokered over 2,500 sister city arrangements since the first in 1973. Agreements typically focus on increasing trade relations, sponsoring cultural festivals and exhibitions, as well as knowledge sharing and capacity building

More than one third of China’s sister cities are in the EAP region, which has seen a 115% surge in these friendship arrangements from 440 in 2000 to 950 in 2018. Sister cities are an example of Beijing’s exchange diplomacy which it uses to cultivate relationships with local-level officials and business leaders. China disproportionately targets its sister cities program to advanced economies in the region, particularly countries that accept more Chinese firms.

Source: Ties That Bind.

International Students in China by Country, 2016

Number of international students (thousands)

China’s Exchange Diplomacy

China has positioned itself as a premier destination for international students to complete their education, attracting a huge uptick in foreign students from 85,000 in 2002 to 442,000 in 2016—a 420% change (China Power Team, 2017; Bislev, 2017). The lion’s share of these international students are from EAP countries (41%), which is double or triple the representation from other regions.

Today’s top students may be tomorrow’s political leaders, intellectuals, and experts. Beijing employs several tactics to attract international students through scholarships, loosened visa requirements, and cooperative agreements. To further prime the pipeline of international students, the Chinese government arranges trips to China for school principals for other countries, as well as providing Chinese language teachers to work with university, secondary, and even primary school students to grow their interest in studying in China.

Source: Ties That Bind.

How does China tailor its public diplomacy mix across countries?

China's Public Diplomacy Portfolio by Country

Engagement Overall versus Per Capita

Level of Engagement versus Diversity of Tools

About the report

Ties That Bind offers new, comprehensive detail on the nature and impact of Chinese public diplomacy in the region most important to China's strategic interests: East Asia and the Pacific (EAP). 

AidData, a research lab at William & Mary, has collaborated with the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) China Power Project to collect data that sheds new light on China's public diplomacy efforts in East Asia and the Pacific from 2000-2016. This first-of-its-kind report quantifies multiple aspects of China's public diplomacy—financial, cultural, exchange, and elite-to-elite—across 25 countries to determine how it is received by foreign publics and leaders and whether it is meeting Beijing’s objectives.

In partnership with AidData, CSIS, and ASPI, the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore co-hosted a conference to launch the report on June 26th, 2018. Four panel discussions and a lunch keynote, all featuring experts from around the world, dove deeper into the reach and influence of Chinese public diplomacy and the policy implications for countries across the Asia-Pacific. Visit the event page to watch the conference recordings.


This study was conducted with generous support from the United States Department of State and in partnership with the Asia Society Policy Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The report's findings and conclusions are those of its authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of funder and partner organizations.

How was the data collected?

Data on Chinese financial, cultural, exchange, and elite-to-elite diplomacy activities was collected for this report from a range of quantitative and qualitative sources:

  • Projects qualifying as financial diplomacy were drawn from AidData's Global Chinese Official Finance Dataset, 2000-2014, Version 1.0, with AidData's TUFF (Tracking Underrreported Financial Flows) methodology applied to extend coverage through 2016.
  • Information on Confucius Institutes and Classrooms, sister cities, cultural centers and events, and official visits was sourced variously from: the China Foreign Affairs Yearbooks; the China International Friendship City Association; data provided by Xiang and Huang (2015); and supplemental targeted Internet searches.
  • In addition to quantitative data, on-the-ground insights were captured from over 70 government officials, civil society and private sector leaders, academics, journalists, and foreign diplomats in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Fiji, and from interviews with public diplomacy scholars and practitioners.

For more information on our methodology and sources, please see the ReadMe file that accompanies the dataset.