China’s foreign policy is buying influence, but not respect
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China’s foreign policy is buying influence, but not respect

AFTER billions of dollars in strategic investment and years of global outreach, China’s public diplomacy may well have bought them political influence but it hasn’t bought them respect, according to a new poll from Pew Research Centre.

Beijing has been piling money into countries across the world, with a focus on infrastructure, as part of Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy initiative – the US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

In a marked departure from the “low profile” foreign policy of his predecessors, Xi embraced a more active engagement with other countries, particularly its regional counterparts in Asia-Pacific as part of their “good neighbour” strategy.

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A recent report, funded by the US Department of State, explains China’s motives for this influx of public diplomacy. These include improving public opinion across East Asia and the Pacific, in keeping with Beijing’s desire for greater status or admiration. As well as political influence and an assurance the region’s leaders are in line with China’s foreign policy interests – in other words, they vote Beijing’s way on international issues. This is especially key it when it comes to China’s desire for legitimacy in the South China Sea.

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While Xi’s investments may have bought him the latter through debt-diplomacy, they have not delivered the former.

There is global agreement that China’s on the rise in terms of global influence, however, the majority still don’t want it acting as a world leader, preferring instead to remain with the somewhat erratic leadership of the United States.

In a poll of 25 countries across the globe, only 19 percent agreed that China acting the world’s leading power would be a good thing, compared to 63 percent in favour of the United States.

Notably, four of the five countries most inclined to choose the US over China are located in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan has the least favourable view with only eight percent think China would be better, followed by South Korea (11 percent), the Philippines (12 percent), and Australia (14 percent).

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China pledged US$24 billion worth of foreign direct investment and overseas development aid to the Philippines in 2016. While the diplomatic outreach has won Beijing some allies among the country’s political elite, it has done little to win over the average Filipino.

Xi’s leadership, however, is not in question in the Philippines with 58 percent of respondents saying they had confidence in his leadership. This is far higher than others in Asia-Pacific, with a regional median of just 37 percent having confidence. East Asia neighbour Japan dropped as low as 17 percent confidence, against 76 percent no confidence in Xi’s leadership.

The global median of all polled countries was just 34 percent.

Another Southeast Asian focus of Chinese diplomacy and investment in Indonesia. China became Indonesia’s second-biggest source of foreign direct investment in 2017, and officials in Jakarta say they expect the Chinese inflows to continue.

Despite this, belief in Xi’s leadership hovers at only 36 percent. It’s desire to see China as the world’s leading power is also low at only 22 percent.

Negative views of China seemed to be directly tied to perception of Beijing’s human rights record.

Globally, 66 percent said Xi’s Communist Party of China does not respect the personal freedoms of its people. Those countries that believed this were more likely to have unfavourable views of China. European countries, in particular, took an unfavourable stance with 82 percent saying Beijing does not respect personal freedoms.

Among countries at the more negative end of the scale, Japan is the outlier, showing higher levels of general dissatisfaction with China that may relate to historical and political strains in bilateral relations.

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Despite its negative impact on global opinion of China, Beijing seemingly has no plans to improve their human rights record and encroachment on freedoms.

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In recent weeks, the government has admitted to running “re-education” camps for Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang region. And several high-profile people, including the regional head of Interpol, have been arrested under Xi’s tough new anti-corruption drive.

More broadly, Human Rights Watch accuses China of a “broad and sustained offensive on human rights that started after President Xi Jinping took power… [and] shows no sign of abating.”

With flowing investment not doing the trick in changing global opinion, Beijing will likely need to turn its eyes closer to home to win hearts overseas.