Tuesday, February 23, 2016

China's Public Diplomacy in Europe


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China is very proactive on the diplomatic front, both bilaterally and multilaterally.  China’s public diplomacy has gone into overdrive in Europe. Many of China’s policy initiatives, such as the ‘China Dream’, the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) or even the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) have been the subject of intense lobbying and communication to European publics, power brokers and decision makers. The frequency and depth of diplomatic exchanges varies across Europe but has intensified in general. With Germany, for instance, China continues to have full fledged, regularized ‘government consultations.’ The UK, France and Germany now have annual high-level dialogues on economic and financial cooperation. Meanwhile, track 1.5 and more informal track-two dialogues with China have multiplied across the continent. There has been a proliferation of forums, conferences, multi-country delegation visits and informal diplomatic exchanges. Through new forums such as the 16+1 format, China bundles its foreign policy presence in a region re-defined according to Chinese interests, concentrates its public diplomacy and creates tools to identify potential avenues for cooperation and investment
China’s ‘Methodology for Europe’
Generally, China follows more than ever a flexible approach to European markets, adjusting to the changes happening in the domestic and regional context as much as possible and trying to seize opportunities that emerge.
Interestingly,  China communicates with each member state using more or less the same general methodological framework:
  • There is a constant labelling and upgrading of bilateral relations: China has ‘comprehensive strategic partnerships’ with most (though not all) European countries. In some cases this label is combined with additional terminology: with France it is also described as ‘global, close and lasting,’ with Germany it is ‘all-dimensional’ and in Italy’s case it is ‘stable, friendly long-term and sustainable.’ Interestingly, most EU Member States have become somewhat socialized to using these classifications, although the exact meaning that China attaches to them remains unclear in many cases. Recently, there has been a trend to re-specify these labels to highlight the ‘special’ relationship with China, as  in the cases of the Netherlands and Finland.
  • There is also great care in Beijing to highlight the ‘specific’ historical and cultural ties that exist between China and the different European countries. Special emphasis is given to anniversaries of the bilateral relations. The Chinese diplomats are also eager to invocate the common experience of suffering from external oppression (this is done in the CEE countries), but also of having an imperial past with a rich history and a long-lasting civilization (this applies to the UK, Spain and Portugal). Even anecdotal cultural affinities like putting the surname first, as in the case of Hungary, are invoked.
  • Another growing phenomenon is that many European countries are being increasingly seen by their Chinese partners as potential platforms for bolstering relations with other regions in the world, relating largely to their colonial histories or their history of engagement in fields such as development cooperation. Relations with Portugal, for instance, are sometimes framed within the context of increasing ties with Portuguese-speaking countries, while Spain is seen as a partner for further engagement with Latin America, and France for francophone Africa. The general impression that stands out from the above points is that China is applying the same methodological framework to each Member State, while at the same time adapting the content to the local context. Indeed, China does not fully follow a common pattern in its relations with European countries. Its reactions to similar situations sometimes vary from one country to another.
  • China also started the 16+1 sub-regional diplomatic grouping with the former socialist states of the CEE countries. But so far it has not attempted to do the same with other sub-regions such as the financially weakened southern flank of the Eurozone or the Nordic states. It remains to be seen whether this sub-regional experience is a one-off strategy or whether it will be tried somewhere else. Given the current disappointment in some CEE countries with 16+1, it is also difficult to see any other region in Europe embracing new sub-regional frameworks led by China.
To sum up, many EU Member States have now a strategic partnership agreement with China, but this remains generally an empty phrase. So far it appears to be a strategy by China to show every partner that they are important and thus maintain positivity and keep hopes high on the evolution of the relationship. It seems that China has managed to create ‘28 different gateways to the EU.’ This shows that China gives great strategic importance to Europe and is investing considerable amounts of money and effort to establish good relations. This is no surprise. In an increasingly multipolar world where U.S. power is in relative decline, a weaker Europe is not in China’s interest. One common discourse that Chinese diplomats repeat all over Europe is that China is in favour of a tripolar world order with the U.S. and the EU as the other poles. In this regard, there is no strong evidence to suggest that China has a deliberate strategy to divide Europe. To the contrary, it is intra-European competition and lack of coordination over China that makes Europe vulnerable. In other words, China does not need to divide Europe because Europe is already divided.
Last but not least, Chinese policy-makers regard culture as the most important source of China’s soft power. China invests greatly in promoting Chinese arts and the Chinese language in Europe. At EU level, there is a policy dialogue on culture between the EC and China. The Chinese Ministry of Culture and private organisations organize innumerable exhibitions, festivals, Chinese cultural projects (such as the China Culture Year) and Chinese New Year events in Europe. China has also established a number of Confucius Institutes in Europe (France, Germany, UK).

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