Silk Road Diplomacy: Deconstructing Beijing’s Toolkit to Influence South and Central Asia

Introduction: Quantifying Beijing’s public diplomacy overtures and influence in South and Central Asia 

Beijing’s fix­a­tion on pro­ject­ing an attrac­tive vision of itself to the rest of the world is not unique to China: states have long prac­ticed the art of pub­lic diplo­ma­cy in a bid to win favor with cit­i­zens and offi­cials in oth­er coun­tries and there­by advance their nation­al inter­ests (Helmers, 2016). In this vein, Chinese lead­ers are mind­ful of the need to expand the gov­ern­men­t’s pub­lic diplo­ma­cy capa­bil­i­ties to effec­tive­ly man­age neg­a­tive reac­tions to its grow­ing eco­nom­ic and mil­i­tary strength over the past two decades, as well as to win friends and allies to real­ize its glob­al ambi­tions (Zhang, 2018; Liu, 2017; Cheng, 2016). 

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s sig­na­ture for­eign pol­i­cy projects, most notably the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), have attract­ed spec­u­la­tion among those who view this as a strate­gic piv­ot away from the cau­tious “hide and bide phi­los­o­phy” of his pre­de­ces­sors (Economy, 2019; Yan, 2014; Nie, 2016). However, this obscures the fact that Beijing’s inter­est in man­ag­ing its glob­al image was equal­ly shared by Xi’s pre­de­ces­sor President Hu Jintao since the mid 2000s and enjoys wide­spread sup­port among gov­ern­ment offi­cials and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mem­bers (Fitzgerald, 2018; Shambaugh, 2018). 

Beijing’s aspi­ra­tions may be glob­al, but it takes a spe­cial inter­est in cul­ti­vat­ing clos­er rela­tions with­in China’s “greater periph­ery,” 1 includ­ing the 13 coun­tries of South and Central Asia 2 that are the focus of this par­tic­u­lar report (Swaine, 2014; Li and Zheng, 2016). Chinese lead­ers are keen to avoid insta­bil­i­ty in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries that could spill over into unrest at home. Moreover, Beijing wants to project strength in order to check the influ­ence of its region­al rivals, India and Russia. Finally, Chinese lead­ers view many of the coun­tries in the region as sup­pli­ers of raw mate­ri­als China needs to fuel its econ­o­my, mar­kets for Chinese goods and invest­ment, as well as tran­sit nodes to access lucra­tive mar­kets in Europe. 

Beijing is not well posi­tioned to achieve these myr­i­ad aims through con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tary means and the country’s west­ern region is com­par­a­tive­ly under­de­vel­oped eco­nom­i­cal­ly to its pop­u­lous coastal areas. As Scobell et al. (2014) note, the Chinese government’s “defense pos­ture is heav­i­ly skewed towards the east” and Beijing instead relies upon an “emp­ty fortress strat­e­gy” to project strength with SCA coun­tries in order to “mask seri­ous frailty.” In this respect, pub­lic diplo­ma­cy is a crit­i­cal ingre­di­ent in Beijing’s toolk­it to neu­tral­ize poten­tial threats, over­come inter­nal dis­ad­van­tages, and out­ma­neu­ver region­al com­peti­tors who could vie with the Chinese gov­ern­ment for influ­ence. As inter­na­tion­al relations 

schol­ar John Arquilla (Nye, 2014) puts it, “in today’s glob­al infor­ma­tion age, vic­to­ry may some­times depend not on whose army wins, but on whose sto­ry wins.” 

In this report, the authors aim to illu­mi­nate which tools Beijing deploys, with whom, and to what effects in the South and Central Asia (SCA) region. To this end, AidData—a research lab at William & Mary—in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) and the China Power Project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), col­lect­ed an unprece­dent­ed amount of qual­i­ta­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive data on Beijing’s pub­lic diplo­ma­cy in the SCA region from 2000 through 2018. We hypoth­e­size that as the Chinese gov­ern­ment increas­es its pub­lic diplo­ma­cy over­tures with SCA coun­tries, this should be asso­ci­at­ed with more favor­able pop­u­lar per­cep­tions of Beijing in the region and clos­er align­ment with Beijing in SCA lead­ers’ pol­i­cy decisions. 

In the sub­se­quent chap­ters, we put this hypoth­e­sis to an empir­i­cal test—quantifying the vol­ume and com­po­si­tion of Beijing’s pub­lic diplo­ma­cy toolk­it in the SCA region (Chapter 2), exam­in­ing how these over­tures are per­ceived on the ground in six coun­tries (Chapters 3 and 4), assess­ing how Beijing’s pub­lic diplo­ma­cy inputs are cor­re­lat­ed with the out­comes it hopes to achieve (Chapter 5), and cap­tur­ing lessons learned and impli­ca­tions for the SCA region in future (Chapter 6). In the remain­der of this chap­ter, we pro­vide fur­ther detail on how we will con­cep­tu­al­ize (Section 1.1) and quan­ti­fy (Section 1.2) Beijing’s pub­lic diplo­ma­cy overtures. 

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