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China’s Entering the Third Year of the Pandemic, Soft Power Competition

Daniele Carminati is a PhD candidate in Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong. His interest revolves around the impact of globalization and the ensuing trends and issues across East and Southeast Asia with a particular focus on soft power dynamics and connectivity (“the Belt and Road”). He has a mixed background in international relations from several universities between Europe and Asia. Daniele is also a commissioning editor at E-International Relations.

Daniele Carminati: China’s Entering the Third Year of the Pandemic, Soft Power Competition

Recently, the Beijing Winter Olympics has begun on February 4. The popular mascots featuring Chinese pandas and lanterns attracted the goodwill of the western public and mitigated the negative impact of the boycott of the Winter Olympics. Although China's soft power and cultural attraction have been gradually improved, it still has problems and faces challenges. On this issue, we have conducted an interview with Dr. Daniele Carminati, hoping to know his analyses of China’s image, reputation and soft power, and the main challenge China currently faces in improving its cultural attraction.

We are now entering the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic and there might be some signs that the worst has passed. Countries have adopted different approaches trying to balance the fine line between health needs and socioeconomic ones. All countries are certainly eager to move on and the single main factor that could grant this is widespread vaccination, in spite of it not being a perfect tool. Yet not all countries are able to develop, manufacture at scale, and timely export vaccines, but the few that are able to do so have pledged to provide them to countries in need. Due to the tense geopolitical times we are living in, even such a benevolent deed somehow resulted in competition. In principle, the recipients should be grateful to whoever provides vaccines and medical assistance, and this is a prime chance to boost bilateral relations and a country’s reputation. But when more actors are willing to do so, these dynamics can be seen as one more manifestation of soft power competition.

The major providers of vaccines, so far, have been the US, China, several European countries, Australia, and Japan. However, some doses were donated and others were sold. According to an online tracker, the US has donated more than 400 million but pledged 1.2 billion. China has donated 174 million of which around half doses have been already shipped, but sold 1.69 billion. Some reports from early 2021 claimed that vaccine diplomacy was already “paying off” for China, but the situation might have changed considerably since then. First, there have been claims that Chinese inactivated vaccines had a lower efficacy as compared to more sophisticated mRNA ones. Because of this, Singapore went as far as omitting Sinovac shots from the total vaccination count. Second, following new variants such as Omicron, the concerns over efficacy have grown, even expanding to other vaccines.

All considered, from a reputational perspective, China might have not benefitted much from this first round of vaccine diplomacy, although some polls and surveys may reveal a more precise picture depending on the specific country. Some developing ones that have been ignored or overlooked by Western aid might still be grateful to China, and future analyses could eventually reveal the presence and extent of these perceptional patterns.

With that said, China is now testing a locally-developed mRNA vaccine. This might be beneficial in multiple ways. First, it will strengthen the immunity of Chinese citizens against more recent variants, especially since people have been shielded from the virus for several months now. Second, it will give more confidence to gradually reopen the borders–although this will not happen any time soon due to the logistics involved in producing and delivering billions of vaccines to cover most of the Chinese population. Third and consequential, reopening the borders means the long-awaited ‘reactivation’ of multiple channels of attraction such as student exchanges, tourism, business trips, and even a new phase of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For instance, the newly opened China-Laos high-speed railway will be able to transport not only goods but also tourists and businesspeople across borders, fostering greater interaction and opportunities. Thailand, among other countries, is also looking forward to welcoming back Chinese tourists, although it is still uncertain when this may happen and if it will eventually return to pre-pandemic levels. For the time being, even if admiration for China’s domestic success is present, it clashes with the desire of most of the world for the country to reopen.

Beyond pandemic-related considerations, soft power dynamics are more commonly found in the sociocultural sphere. Chinese New Year seems to be an increasingly celebrated and somehow accepted event, although an often-commercialized one, but it is undeniable that China’s clout and the ensuing interest in the country is poised to grow. The challenge is to develop genuine attraction instead of mainly relying on economic incentives. Now that the borders are closed, online interactions are not just the norm, but the one and only way to interact, and virtual debates tend to escalate quickly, even resulting in unfounded conspirational accusations. The Beijing Winter Olympics might be a chance for more constructive dialogue and rediscovery of a feeling of unity through sports, even with (and perhaps especially because of) an ongoing pandemic. More generally, only greater opportunities for honest interaction can break this vicious cycle of misinformation between Chinese citizens and foreign ones.

Broadening the outlook, as I have argued elsewhere, the BRI includes all the right elements to bridging the gap between different cultures towards mutual understanding and eventually prosperity, a true win-win. Infrastructure such as bridges and railways are much needed in the developing world and beyond, and digital infrastructure are also needed to create new opportunities through advanced technologies (e.g., 5G, smart cities). Educational and cultural exchanges are equally needed to smoothen the process while ensuring that the parties involved in negotiations and implementation of new projects and collaborations are perceived as respectful and fair. The BRI has now grown to encompass multiple spheres of global interest such as digital (Digital Silk Road), environmental (Green Silk Road), and health (Health Silk Road). Each of these dimensions clearly carries great potential. At the same time, all are likely to be politicized. Competition might be positive for countries that are benefitting from it as the contenders strive to provide more appealing proposals and offers. However, it should be kept in mind that these issues are predominantly borderless and eventually require collaboration to define standards and regulations to address them, if future catastrophic developments are to be avoided.

For the time being, it seems like China’s efforts are better (but not unanimously) received in the developing world and Beijing might want to double-down on initiatives in receptive areas to maintain or further improve relations. These can take the form of a ‘smart’ blend of soft sociocultural promotion and economic incentives such as infrastructure and business partnerships. However, depending on how these are implemented, they might fuel the increasingly perilous feelings that a new Cold War is taking shape, through so-called spheres of influence, hence every step should be weighed carefully. With that said, soft power competition characterized by charm offensives (or strategies of attraction) supported by economic incentives may still be preferable over harder forms of competition, but one might not exclude the other.

Ultimately, charm offensives might be better received when they elevate one actor’s skills and achievements (e.g., creative, technological, entrepreneurial) and how these can be mutually beneficial, and not when they take the shape of ‘de-charm’ offensives, intended as accusations and belittlement of competitors. Eventually, countries and their citizens want to see tangible results and improvements in their daily lives, and heated tweet exchanges do not help in achieving such results. An appealing and persuading rhetoric may be a good start, but a pragmatic approach towards sought-after outcomes is likely to be the one that pays off, especially in these challenging and uncertain times. The post-pandemic recovery, which might be about to start, is ripe for opportunities to revamp a country’s image and reputation, as the actions taken in this period will reverberate for years or even decades. Major powers have been advancing inclusive visions, such as a return to multilateral cooperation or a “community of shared future for mankind,” but only the one that delivers is expected to get a major reputational boost.

Interviewer: Xu Houkun

Interview date: February 11, 2022

Collator: Zhang Jingyue

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