RPI author Rajesh Rajagopalan on “Iran nuclear deal: The promise and the peril”

The Iran nuclear agreement is a great victory for US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, neither of whom have had much success in foreign policy. Despite all the compromises, the Iran nuclear agreement – or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – does have the potential to hold Iran accountable for what it does with its nuclear programme for 15 years. This is assuming the US is willing to confront Iran if necessary, which is not a given especially in the remaining year and a half of the Obama administration. It also gives Iran yet another chance to prove that it is a state that abides by the solemn international commitments it willingly undertakes and that suspicions about it seeking nuclear weapons are unfounded.


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Policy Alert: Asian Powers React to Iran Nuclear Deal

iran nuclear dealAfter long, fractious negotiations, world powers and Iran struck a historic deal on Tuesday to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from  international sanctions. This Policy Alert examines reactions from China, India, Russia, South Korea, and Japan to the Iranian nuclear deal.


Chinese media expressed cautious optimism for the nuclear deal and predicted a surge in trade between Iran and China as a result of the deal. (more…)

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Policy Alert: Greece Financial Crisis Draws Reactions from Asian Powers

greece-euro-crisisGreece slipped deeper into its financial crisis at midnight Tuesday after it became the first developed economy to default on a loan with the International Monetary Fund. Greece will hold a referendum on Sunday, asking citizens to decide whether to accept the austerity demands of its international lenders in return for more cash. In this Policy Alert, we examine reactions from Russia, India, China, Japan, and South Korea to the ongoing Greek financial crisis.


Russian officials expressed concern about Greece’s financial crisis while simultaneously dispelling rumors that Russia might offer Greece a bailout. (more…)

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Policy Alert: South China Sea Disputes is at Center of Debates by Asian Powers

As the United States and China meet this week for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, territorial disputes in the South China Sea will be near the top of the agenda. This event follows last month’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore where U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and several other Asian powers expressed strong concerns over China’s now completed island-building reclamation efforts in disputed waters.

This Policy Alert is the first in a series on Energy and Maritime Security for the Rising Powers Initiative’s new project: The Linkages between Energy Security and Maritime Strategies in the Indo-Pacific. The research effort looks at how energy security debates shape and influence maritime strategies and vice-versa in China, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam and the implications of these linkages for U.S. policy toward the region.


Secretary Carter’s address to the Shangri-La Dialogue presented his vision for a “regional architecture” to tackle five major challenges: “long-standing rules and norms, strengthening our institutions, modernizing alliances, enhancing capabilities and improving connectivity.”

The tense security environment has driven many U.S. allies and other powers in the Asia-Pacific to increase their purchase of U.S. defense technologies and equipment.


While several countries in the past have constructed artificial islands in South China Sea, China’s efforts are on a massive scale with “more new island surface [in the last 18 months] than all other nations have constructed throughout history.” During the Shangri-La Dialogue, however, Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo pushed back against those who painted a negative picture of China’s maritime deeds:

  • The admiral argued “the situation in the South China Sea is on the whole peaceful and stable, and there has never been an issue with the freedom of navigation.”
  • China’s first white paper on military strategy released in late-May stated an “active defense” whereby “we will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.” This characterization was echoed by Zhao Xiaozhuo, a researcher with the Chinese Army’s Academy of Military Science, who stressed “China’s great restraint” in the face of outside pressure.

While Chinese officials rejected calls to stop its reclamation project at the Singapore summit, Beijing later clarified on June 16 that it would soon end island-building activities in the South China Sea but not development of military and civilian facilities on the existing sites:

In response to outside pressure, several media outlets and China-based scholars turned the focus on the United States and the actions of its allies in the region:

  • Wang Hui, senior writer at China Daily, protested U.S. involvement in the disputed waters as “counterproductive” and ultimately risking military confrontation. This view was echoed by China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai.
  • The Global Times editorialized that Carter’s remarks were “tarnishing China’s image to scare ASEAN” in hopes of driving “a wedge into the cooperation between China and the ASEAN countries.”


When Carter visited Indian leaders in early June, one of the top items on the agenda was the mounting tensions in the South China Sea, a continuation from President Obama’s January trip to the country and an October 2014 India-U.S. joint statement on “rising tensions over maritime territorial disputes” in the South China Sea.

Several local media outlets and commentators noted India’s low level of participation in the Shangri-La Dialogue and questioned New Delhi’s commitment to responding to China:


Tokyo has closely followed China’s activities in the disputed waters and made efforts at several international fora to keep the issue in the spotlight:

  • While at the recent G-7 meeting, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to raise Asia’s importance on the agenda and achieved a joint statement by leaders calling for a “rules-based maritime order and achieving maritime security.” At the Shangri-La Dialogue, China’s Admiral Sun Jianguo and the Director General of the Japanese Defense Policy Bureau Hideshi Tokuchi expressed interest in a Memorandum of Understanding on a “maritime and aerial crisis liaison mechanism” to diffuse tensions in the region such as the Diayou/Senkaku Islands dispute.

The United States, Japan, and the Philippines held joint maritime exercises this week near the disputed waters. Several commentators provided their thoughts on these regional security efforts:

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun encouraged Japanese legislators to “enhance deterrence by expanding the roles of the [Self Defense Force]” against “China’s military buildup and maritime defense.” The Asahi Shimbun editorialized that while Japan needs to adjust its security strategies to “reflect changing global energy landscape,” the “world oil market is not driven by concerns about security threats posed by China.”
  • On the other hand, The Mainichi pushed back on calls for the expansion of the Japan’s military mission, warning U.S.-led containment strategies against China may further mistrust between Tokyo and Beijing and harm economic growth. The Asahi Shimbun noted the “worrisome” expansion of Southeast Asian states’ naval power in response to China and how U.S. military operations could “further exacerbate tensions in the area.”


Several commentators and media sources in the Philippines expressed anxiety about China’s actions in the region and the U.S. response:

  • Ana Marie Pamintuan, editor-in-chief for The Philippine Star, reported on how Beijing’s “expansive territorial claims” could one day disrupt critical ASEAN trade and supply lines. Elfren S. Cruz, a columnist for The Philippine Star, wrote that if the United States backs down to China’s “core interests of becoming the superpower in Asia,” then America “will lose its superpower position.” He warned some “countries – Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia – will form a defensive alliance to protect themselves.”
  • Godofredo Roperos, a columnist for the Sun Star Cebu, hoped the Philippines would receive a “favorable ruling from [the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in early 2016]” as it will “be a big victory diplomatically even if China will not recognize the decision.”

In contrast, other commentators warned that the Philippines would suffer in any U.S.-China conflict if Manila continued its own aggressive posture:

  • The Tribune lamented that the Philippines were “moving based on which string the U.S. pulls that mostly consists of further incensing China and contributing to the already heated situation.”
  • The Manila Times scolded Philippines President Benigno Aquino for issuing an “unnecessary provocation of China” and argued the “disputed territories issue should not define our relations with China” since the country has “more to gain from befriending China than by antagonizing it.”


At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Vietnam’s Deputy Defense Minister attributed the elevated profile of the disputed waters on the agenda to China’s recent flurry of activity, which prompted a range of responses:

  • Vietnam’s Rear Admiral Le Ke Lam stressed that his country considers “China’s act of turning the reefs of Vietnam that it illegally occupies into military outposts is very dangerous, seriously affecting security in the region and the world.”
  • In an interview with VietNamNet Bridge, Tran Cong Truc, former chief of the Government’s Border Committee, warned the risk of escalation in the region was “pretty high, especially when China is now ignoring all multilateral and bilateral political agreements.”

In an interview with Vietnam’s Youth Online [article in Vietnamese], RPI project scholar Alexander Vuving compared China’s actions to the philosophy behind Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, naming that the supreme art of war is to “subdue the enemy without fighting”:

  • He argued Beijing’s island reclamation efforts and legal maneuvering aim to create new conditions in the South China Sea where it can claim an exclusive economic zone and maintain control without resorting to military force.

Before traveling to India, Ashton Carter used his first trip to Vietnam as defense secretary to urge all countries in the region – including his host nation – to halt their land reclamation projects:

  • Carter and Vietnam’s General Phung Quang Thanh signed a Joint Vision Statement whereby the United States pledged support for Hanoi’s peacekeeping training and operations.
  • Furthermore, Vietnam’s Major General Le Van Cuong, former director of the Strategy Institute, welcomed the “strong” U.S. response, which “makes China more shy when doing brazen actions.”


Be sure to follow the RPI’s Energy Security and Maritime Debates in Asia project as these issues evolve. Stay connected on Twitter at @Westmyer or visit the project website and blog at

By Timothy Westmyer, Program and Research Assistant, Rising Powers Initiative

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Three Anti Sentiments Driving China’s Partnership with South Korea

South Korea’s joining of the AIIB on April 11 and signing of the China-ROK FTA on June 1 signified China and South Korea’s growing interdependence under Presidents Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye, whose two summits since 2013 were an early affirmation of the upgraded China-ROK partnership.  Yet in the first half of 2015, this heightened optimism gave way to recurring tensions over South Korea’s military alliance with the United States, reinforcing what many identify as Seoul’s biggest strategic dilemma of how to balance ties with the two major powers.  Underlying such tensions, however, are China’s own dilemmas on the Korean peninsula, as reflected in current debates on the evolving Sino-South Korean relationship.  Three anti sentiments are shaping China’s orientation toward South Korea, namely anti-US alliance, anti-North Korea, and anti-Japan sentiments.

Anti-US alliance

The US-ROK alliance remains the biggest source of tension in Sino-South Korean relations, traditionally viewed through the lens of US-China great power politics.  After a sustained period of engagement, frictions over the potential deployment of US advanced missile system THAAD on the peninsula emerged as a major test for Presidents Xi and Park earlier this year.  US-ROK defense meetings in April prompted warnings that China would build up its own military capabilities to counter the program, which some believe does not primarily target DPRK security threats.  For others, the deployment of THAAD on Korean soil would undo not just the warming of Chinese public attitudes toward South Korean counterparts but also the very foundation of the China-ROK relationship.

Chinese opposition to US alliances, however, has only served to intensify US and South Korean calls for greater Chinese cooperation against DPRK nuclear and missile threats, while raising new criticism within South Korea over Beijing’s interference in Seoul’s foreign policy decisions.  Despite China and South Korea’s upgraded economic partnership, differences over South Korea’s alliance with the United States continue to demonstrate the difficulties of developing common security interests in Northeast Asia.

Anti-North Korea

On the other hand, North Korea’s continued troublemaking has shifted China’s Korea policy in favor of closer alignment with the South under Xi Jinping, whose first summit with Park Geun-hye broke his predecessors’ generations-old tradition of visiting Pyongyang first.  Since Pyongyang’s 2013 nuclear test, debate has centered on China’s move from pursuing traditional to “normal” ties with the North, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested at China’s March parliamentary session.  While Beijing has welcomed South Korea into the AIIB, it reportedly rebuffed indications of interest from North Korea, where Pyongyang’s failure to commit to market reforms has deterred Chinese investment.  Beijing’s restraint in condemning Pyongyang has also led Chinese commentators to instead vent their frustrations through official media outlets.   Such frustrations surfaced this January after the fatal attacks on Chinese nationals by a North Korean army deserter, which raised Chinese public demands for a more pragmatic approach to inter-state relations with North Korea.  Similarly, Kim Jong-un’s prolonged public absence last fall fueled much speculation over a potential military coup in North Korea among Chinese netizens, who pointed to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions as the key source of its internal political problems after decades of international isolation.

But a longstanding consensus among China’s Korea experts is the role of the US-led alliance network as the primary driver of Pyongyang’s belligerence.  US military exercises with South Korea and Japan earlier this year drove Chinese warnings over a fourth nuclear test amid Pyongyang’s claims of US “hostile policy” to justify its military ambitions.  From these perspectives, resolution of the DPRK nuclear issue depends on not international institutional constraints or greater political will on the part of Beijing, but US policy toward Pyongyang.


Finally, common reservations over Tokyo’s policy orientation under the Abe leadership appear to have drawn Seoul and Beijing together in reconciling history.  Despite their own deep-rooted differences in this arena, some of the earliest substantive achievements of the 2013 Xi-Park summit have been in new areas of history cooperation, including South Korea’s return of the remains of Chinese soldiers killed in the Korean War, the initiation of joint research on comfort women, and establishment of a memorial for Korean independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun in Harbin last year, which Beijing hailed as a triumph against Japanese imperial aggressors.

The resumption of trilateral foreign ministerial talks with Japan last March, on the hand, reassured others that the three sides can still lay aside their political differences in favor of common interests.  Despite the deadlock in high-level talks, three-way cooperation in other functional areas has expanded, while such regional mechanisms as APEC and ASEAN have provided important platforms for reaffirming their joint interests on the sidelines.  For those in support of China-centered economic multilateralism in Asia, Beijing’s engagement of Japan and South Korea satisfies the Xi leadership’s current diplomatic priority of expanding China’s regional commercial partnerships under the name of “win-win cooperation”.

Reconciling Chinese Priorities on the Korean Peninsula

The recent postponement of the US-ROK summit has also put on hold assessments on the direction of Washington and Seoul’s joint regional policies.  While Presidents Obama and Park have long sought closer cooperation with China on regional security, Beijing’s response will depend on how it reconciles its own priorities on the Korean Peninsula.  Although the consolidation of the US-ROK alliance will continue to draw Chinese suspicion, Beijing’s commitment to promoting regional security as well as its new multilateral economic initiatives in Asia will determine the success of not just China’s Korea policy but also Xi Jinping’s broader regional diplomacy.


See-Won Byun is a PhD candidate in the Political Science Department at GW.  She is a recipient of a Sigur Center summer research grant and is currently investigating the foreign economic strategies of China’s border provinces.

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RPI Author David Shambaugh: China’s Soft Power Push

RPI Author David Shambaugh recently published an article in Foreign Policy’s July/August 2015 Issue entitled, “China’s Soft Power Push: The Search for Respect.” He writes:

foreignpolicyDSAs China’s global power grows, Beijing is learning that its image matters. For all its economic and military might, the country suffers from a severe shortage of soft power. According to global public opinion surveys, it enjoys a decidedly mixed international image. While China’s economic prowess impresses much of the world, its repressive political system and mercantilist business practices tarnish its reputation. And so, in an attempt to improve perceptions, Beijing has mounted a major public relations offensive in recent years, investing billions of dollars around the world in a variety of efforts.

Although Beijing’s publicity blitz began in 2007 under President Hu Jintao, it has intensified under President Xi Jinping. In October 2011, as Xi was preparing to take power, the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) devoted a whole plenary session to the issue of culture, with the final communiqué declaring that it was a national goal to “build our country into a socialist cultural superpower.” And in 2014, Xi announced, “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s messages to the world.” Under Xi, China has bombarded the world with a welter of new initiatives: “the Chinese dream,” “the Asia-Pacific dream,” “the Silk Road Economic Belt,” “the Twenty-First-Century Maritime Silk Road,” “a new type of major-country relations,” and many others. It is easy to dismiss such talk as “slogan diplomacy,” but Beijing nonetheless attaches great importance to it.

In China, “propaganda” is not a derogatory term.

China is fleshing out these rhetorical salvos in proposed institutions, such as the New Development Bank (a project organized by China together with Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific. All of these would supplement a host of regional bodies that China has already created in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and central and eastern Europe. Through these institutions, China is meticulously constructing an alternative architecture to the postwar Western order.

And it is backing up its soft-power ventures with serious money: $50 billion for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, $41 billion for the New Development Bank, $40 billion for the Silk Road Economic Belt, and $25 billion for the Maritime Silk Road. Beijing has also pledged to invest $1.25 trillion worldwide by 2025. This scale of investment is unprecedented: even during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union did not spend anywhere near as much as China is spending today. Together, these recent pledges by Beijing add up to $1.41 trillion; in contrast, the Marshall Plan cost the equivalent of $103 billion in today’s dollars.

China’s diplomatic and development schemes form just one part of a much broader agenda aimed at enhancing its soft power in media, publishing, education, the arts, sports, and other domains. Nobody knows for sure how much China spends on these activities, but analysts estimate that the annual budget for “external propaganda” runs in the neighborhood of $10 billion annually. By contrast, the U.S. Department of State spent $666 million on public diplomacy in fiscal year 2014.

Clearly, Beijing is using the strongest instrument in its soft-power toolbox: money. Wherever Chinese leaders travel these days—and between them, Xi and Premier Li Keqiang visited more than 50 countries in 2014—they sign huge trade and investment deals, extend generous loans, and dole out hefty aid packages. Major powers always try to use their financial assets to buy influence and shape the actions of others; in this regard, China is no different. But what is striking about China’s investments is how low a return they appear to be yielding. Actions speak louder than words, and in many parts of the world, China’s behavior on the ground contradicts its benign rhetoric.


The father of soft power, the political scientist Joseph Nye, defined it as emanating largely from society—specifically, cultural, political, and social values. Nye also allowed that a country’s political system and foreign policy could earn respect and thus contribute to its soft power. But this definition is premised on the clear demarcation that exists in democratic societies between state and nonstate spheres. In China, the government manipulates and manages almost all propaganda and cultural activities.

The Chinese communist system has always accepted that information must be managed and that people must be indoctrinated. In China, “propaganda” is not a derogatory term. As the country has opened up to the world, the state has had to try harder to maintain its grip on information, and its efforts on this front have become more sophisticated. Now, however, Chinese authorities are trying to control information not only inside China but increasingly outside, too.

The Chinese government approaches public diplomacy the same way it constructs high-speed rail or builds infrastructure—by investing money and expecting to see development.

The institutional nerve center of this operation is the State Council Information Office (SCIO). Located in a Soviet-era building in central Beijing, it looks like and plays the part of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The SCIO, which forms part of a broader propaganda apparatus, coordinates various propaganda efforts, and it boasts a large staff, a giant budget, and a great deal of bureaucratic clout. Because the SCIO is a key censor and media watchdog in China, the mere mention of its name brings a concerned look to the faces of many Chinese, particularly intellectuals and journalists.

Every December, the SCIO convenes an annual conference at which it outlines guidelines for China’s external propaganda work for the coming year. As Jiang Weiqiang, the SCIO’s vice minister, explained to me in 2009, the blueprint covers “exhibitions, publications, media activities, exchange programs, ‘Year of China’ festivals abroad, and other activities.” Jiang also called the guidelines “our soft-power strategy.” Secret at the time of adoption, the plans are subsequently published in a volume called China Media Yearbook.

In addition to its main role of overseeing the media and coordinating all of China’s external communications, the SCIO acts as a messenger in its own right: it employs spokespeople, holds press conferences, publishes magazines and books, and produces films. It has even developed an app that provides users with one-stop shopping for all of the government’s white papers. Some of the SCIO’s propaganda targets Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas Chinese communities—all high-priority audiences for Beijing. And some of it targets visitors to China, including foreign residents, tourists, and business travelers, through publishing houses such as the Foreign Languages Press and newspapers such as China Daily and the Global Times. The SCIO is also involved in controlling Internet content, including approving all applications for websites. But the SCIO’s principal responsibility is to define the ideas to be propagated abroad and keep other Chinese institutions on message.


A major part of Beijing’s “going out” strategy entails subsidizing the dramatic expansion of its media presence overseas, with the goal of establishing its own global media empire to break what it considers “the Western media monopoly.” Most prominent among these efforts is the Xinhua News Agency, China’s official state news service. From its inception, Xinhua has had a dual role, both domestically and internationally: to report news and to disseminate Communist Party propaganda. Altogether, Xinhua now employs approximately 3,000 journalists, 400 of whom are posted abroad in its 170 bureaus. And Xinhua is expanding the staffs of its existing bureaus and beefing up its online presence with audio and video content.

Xinhua’s global expansion is motivated not just by concern for China’s international image but also by money. Xinhua sees an opportunity to compete head-to-head with the main Western newswires, such as the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, and Bloomberg. The goal, as one Xinhua official I spoke with in 2010 put it, is to become a “real world international news agency.” Xinhua even harbors ambitions of becoming a modern multimedia conglomerate, competing with the likes of News Corp, Viacom, and Time Warner. And once its online video presence expands, it will try to steal market share from 24-hour news channels such as CNN, the BBC, and Al Jazeera.

In its quest for profit, Xinhua publishes descriptive news reports that it markets as a cheaper product than what the Western wire services offer. In 2010, Xinhua had 80,000 paying institutional subscribers, which produced a strong revenue stream. The agency is targeting the developing world in particular, where Western media have a smaller presence and where there is no real domestic competition for international news. Xinhua’s inroads there also help fulfill its goal of telling China’s story to the world.

China’s premier state television channel, CCTV, or China Central Television, has also gone global. It launched its first 24-hour English channel, CCTV International, in 2000 and now broadcasts in six languages around the world. The network is trying to alter its stilted and propagandistic flavor and package its content in more viewer-friendly formats. In 2012, CCTV set up new production facilities in Nairobi, Kenya, and in Washington, D.C., where it unveiled its ambitious CCTV America channel. The Washington operation, CCTV says, will become the global hub of its news gathering and broadcasting operations.

Soft power cannot be bought. It must be earned.

China is also stepping up its penetration of foreign radio waves. China Radio International, formerly known as Radio Beijing, was founded in 1941 as a wartime propaganda tool against Japan but now has far greater reach. With its headquarters in Beijing, it broadcasts 392 hours of programming per day in 38 languages and maintains 27 overseas bureaus.

These media outlets constitute the major weapons in what China considers a “discourse war” with the West, in which Beijing is pushing back against what it perceives as anti-China sentiment around the world. But other official organs are also playing a direct role in these skirmishes. Chinese embassies now regularly issue press statements rebutting foreign media characterizations of China, take out full-page ads in foreign newspapers, and attempt to intimidate universities and nongovernmental organizations that sponsor events deemed unfriendly to China. Their ambassadors publish op-eds.

There is a harder edge to these efforts, too. The Chinese government now monitors foreign China watchers’ and journalists’ writings more carefully than ever before and has stepped up its efforts to intimidate the foreign media—both inside and outside China. In Beijing, the SCIO and the Foreign Ministry often call foreign journalists in for “tea chats” to scold them for articles deemed unfriendly to China. The government has refused to renew the visas of a number of journalists (including some from The New York Times) and has refused to issue visas for American and European scholars on its blacklist. Outside China, embassy officials sometimes warn newspaper editors not to publish articles on subjects that might offend Beijing.

Thus, like its propaganda apparatus, China’s censorship machine is going global. And it appears to be having an impact. In a troubling trend, foreign China scholars are increasingly practicing self-censorship, worried about their continued ability to visit China. The Chinese government has penalized major media outlets, such as Bloomberg, for publishing certain articles. And it has blocked the Chinese-language websites of leading U.S. and British newspapers.


Another weapon in China’s arsenal is education. About 300,000 foreign students now study in Chinese universities (the vast majority learning the Chinese language), with additional numbers in vocational colleges. Every year, the China Scholarship Council offers some 20,000 scholarships to foreign students. Chinese government ministries, meanwhile, administer a variety of short courses for officials, diplomats, and military officers from developing countries. These classes do teach students tangible skills, but they also try to win hearts and minds along the way.

Chinese universities have yet to break into the global elite, however. Only three mainland universities—Peking, Tsinghua, and Fudan—appear in the Times Higher Education’s ranking of the world’s top 100 schools. The impediments to academic renown are serious. The CCP continues to restrict free thought and inquiry, particularly in the humanities and the social sciences. Chinese universities are rife with cronyism, false credentials, plagiarism, and intellectual property theft. Innovation, the Chinese government’s top economic priority, requires open-ended intellectual exploration to incubate, but Chinese educational pedagogy has yet to escape its historical emphasis on rote memorization and censorship.

China’s Confucius Institutes—centers charged with teaching Chinese language and culture abroad—form another key part of the effort to build up China’s educational soft power. With 475 centers operating in 120 countries, the Confucius Institutes have established footholds worldwide. (By contrast, Germany’s long-established Goethe-Institut has 160 centers in 94 countries, and the British Council maintains some 70 centers in 49 countries.) But the Confucius Institutes have come under sharp criticism. In the United States and Canada, professors have called on universities to close down existing Confucius Institutes or not open new ones on the grounds that they undermine academic freedom. And at a Chinese studies conference in 2014 in Portugal, European Sinologists were rankled when Xu Lin—the director of the Ministry of Education organ that oversees the Confucius Institutes—ordered that pages in the conference program that mentioned Taiwan be torn out. As in the United States, media outlets and legislatures across Europe are now scrutinizing Confucius Institutes, and at least one, at Stockholm University, has decided to shut down as a result.

On another front, Beijing is assertively promoting its culture and society abroad through sports, fine arts, performing arts, music, film, literature, and architecture—and making considerable inroads. Art exhibitions of China’s rich imperial past have always been popular around the world; indeed, China’s 3,000-plus years of civilizational heritage may be its strongest soft-power asset. Chinese martial artists and other Chinese performers also attract audiences, as does China’s growing corps of world-class classical musicians, led by the pianist Lang Lang. Chinese films continue to struggle for international market share, but Chinese authors and architects are more popular than ever. In 2012, Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in Literature and Wang Shu won the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Even though China’s professional basketball, hockey, and soccer teams remain far less competitive than their North American and European counterparts, Chinese athletes are racking up Olympic medals in a wide range of events.

China is also engaging in what it calls “host diplomacy,” holding countless governmental and nongovernmental conferences. Large-scale conclaves—such as the Boao Forum for Asia (China’s Davos), the China Development Forum, the Beijing Forum, Tsinghua University’s World Peace Forum, the World Forum on China Studies, and the Global Think Tank Summit—bring leading figures from around the world to China every year. Some events are real extravaganzas, such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. In 2016, the G-20 summit in Hangzhou is expected to be an equally elaborate showcase.

Then there are the government-affiliated exchange programs. The CCP’s International Department (and its front organization, the China Center for Contemporary World Studies) convenes an annual conference called “The Party and the World Dialogue” and brings a steady stream of foreign politicians and intellectuals to China for all-expenses-paid tours. The Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has long engaged in similar outreach. Programs like these offer an astute way for the CCP to cultivate relationships with up-and-coming politicians around the world. The Hong Kong–based China–United States Exchange Foundation, meanwhile, amplifies the voices of Chinese scholars through its website and promotes the positions of the Chinese government through the research grants it gives to American institutions. To date, China has not endowed university research centers or faculty professorships. If and when it does, it will learn that in the West, there are real limits to buying political influence on campuses and in think tanks.

The Chinese military maintains its own outreach organizations: the China Institute of International Strategic Studies and the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies. Both are affiliated with military intelligence and serve as the principal conduits for inviting foreign security specialists to China. These two institutions both broadcast and receive: in addition to explaining China’s positions on strategic and military issues to foreigners, they collect views and intelligence from foreign experts and officials.

Several of China’s foreign policy think tanks perform a comparable dual function. The most important of these include the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, the China Institute of International Studies, and the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies—all of which are attached to various parts of the Chinese government. To a lesser extent, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences do the same thing, but on a much broader range of issues. In 2009, private donors established the Charhar Institute, which focuses specifically on improving China’s overseas image. Taken as a whole, this conglomerate of well-funded institutions and initiatives aimed at boosting China’s reputation around the world is a testament to the priority Beijing attaches to the effort.

Yet for all the billions of dollars China is spending on these efforts, it has yet to see any demonstrable improvement in its global image, at least as measured by public opinion surveys. In fact, the country’s reputation has steadily deteriorated. A 2014 BBC poll showed that since 2005, positive views about China’s influence had declined by 14 percentage points and that a full 49 percent of respondents viewed China negatively. Surprisingly, as a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project indicates, China’s soft-power deficit is apparent even in Africa and Latin America, precisely the regions where one would think the country’s appeal would be strongest.

In spite of these meager results, Beijing is still expending enormous effort and resources to change perceptions. Why the disconnect? The answer is that the Chinese government approaches public diplomacy the same way it constructs high-speed rail or builds infrastructure—by investing money and expecting to see development. What China fails to understand is that despite its world-class culture, cuisine, and human capital, and despite its extraordinary economic rise over the last several decades, so long as its political system denies, rather than enables, free human development, its propaganda efforts will face an uphill battle.

Soft power cannot be bought. It must be earned. And it is best earned when a society’s talented citizens are allowed to interact directly with the world, rather than being controlled by authorities. For China, that would mean loosening draconian restraints at home and reducing efforts to control opinion abroad. Only then could the country tap its enormous reserves of unrealized soft power.

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Policy Alert: MERS Outbreak in South Korea Sparks Reactions from Asian Powers

mersThe Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus in South Korea has killed 16 people and infected nearly 150 in the largest outbreak outside of the Middle East. In this Policy Alert, we examine reactions from South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia to the MERS outbreak.


South Korean authorities have placed more than 5,200 people nationwide under isolation to impede the transmission of the virus. Meanwhile, one of South Korea’s largest hospitals has suspended many of its services after being identified as the source of almost half the cases. South Korea’s economy has also suffered from the outbreak, with over 100,000 canceled tourist visits to the country and decreased department and retail store sales. (more…)

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Policy Alert: PM Narendra Modi’s China Visit Draws Reactions in Asia

modichinaIndian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid his first visit to China since taking office a year ago. The much anticipated three day trip began May 14 and yielded 26 deals worth $22 billion between the two countries spanning a wide range of industries including renewable energy, power infrastructure, and steel. Prime Minister Modi began his trip in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province and the hometown of Chinese President Xi Jinping, followed by meetings in Beijing and Shanghai. This Policy Alert covers reactions to Modi’s visit from India, China, and South Korea.


Media coverage on Modi’s visit spanned a wide range of topics including addressing the India-China trust deficit, the trip’s emphasis on soft power diplomacy, and Modi’s capacity to expand Sino-Indian ties. (more…)

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RPI Visiting Scholar Bhubhindar Singh: Japan’s Global Image Blemished by History

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a State Dinner during Abe's April  2015 visit to the United States (Source: Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a State Dinner during Abe’s April 2015 visit to the United States (Source: Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States at the end of April was a resounding success overall. One of the main highlights of the five-day visit was the signing of the new US-Japan Guidelines for Defense Cooperation. The defense guidelines, as David Shear, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, insisted are not a revision of the 1997 version but signaled a new phase in US-Japan defense cooperation. The new guidelines introduced a whole-of-government coordination on bilateral issues to ensure a more effective alliance coordination mechanism; authorized Japan to engage in missions to defend the United States and other friendly countries even when Japan is not under attack (known as collective self-defense); expanded bilateral defense cooperation from a regional to global level; and finally, included new areas of defense cooperation relevant to the current strategic environment, such as, cyber and space.

The introduction of the new defense guidelines is a positive development in three ways; reinforced the already strong defense relationship between the United States and Japan; strengthened the deterrence effect against the key strategic challenges facing both states; and elevated Japanese security policy expansion to the global level. This is a positive development and there is no reason to doubt Japan’s intentions. (more…)

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Policy Brief: Cautious Optimism from Asia’s Energy Security Debates

energyMeeting the energy demands of a growing economy is one of the primary challenges in the 21st century. This endeavor has led many states in Asia to consider whether to satisfy their energy needs through competitive “resource nationalism” or to instead rely on market-based approaches and better energy efficiency. These debates have profound implications for U.S. foreign policy in the region and took center stage at a roundtable on Energy Security Worldviews hosted by the Sigur Center for Asian Studies. Three experts who participated in a major Sigur Center research project presented their findings that there are relatively optimist prospects for energy security in Asia, thus posing a challenge to prevailing assumptions and fears.

This research project studied how three foreign policy “schools of thought” contended for influence in the domestic energy security debates of several countries in Asia. The nationalist school argues that energy vulnerability demands greater national autonomy, mercantilist policies, and aggressive military strategies to realize these goals. Globalists, on the other hand, emphasize liberal market approaches and international regimes as solutions for the region’s energy demands. A third group, realists, focuses on geo-strategic international cost-benefit calculations.

In Japan, South Korea, and to a degree in China, coalitions of pragmatic realists and liberal globalists have thus far steered domestic energy debates away from the nationalist camp. This Policy Brief explores energy debates in Asia, the factors underlying them, and the future outlook for energy security and U.S. foreign policy in the region. (more…)

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