(13/60) Eight Ways China is Changing the World using Soft Power this Month (Jan ‘22)

Every month, through China’s current 5 year plan, we highlight 8 Chinese soft power actions; in order to: i) Show the importance of soft power in sustaining China’s growth overseas. ii) Capture the acceleration towards a more multipolar world. iii) Strengthen East-West and South-South understanding.

This is based on tertiary sources and in-country local accounts.

January 2022

1) Inspiring the space race: China built an artificial moon. We continue to cover China’s remarkable foray and technological advancements in space exploration. Now, China has built an artificial moon. Why? To simulate lunar environment for future missions (they plan to land the first Taikonauts in 2030) and to maintain their space innovation momentum. Already in the past year they have landed on the far side of the moon, launched a space station, sent a rover to mars, and returned rocks from the moon for the first time in 44 years… and they have also pledged to build a 1km long space station addition. It is happening too fast for us to be astonished. The soft power implications are as relevant as the technological spin-offs for these endeavors: they inspire the next generation, affirm their actions are benevolent contributors to science and the space aeronautics community, support private development, and they also provide opportunities for other countries to look to China in their own space ambitions. Ultimately, it is the best possible branding for Chinese ‘STEM’ education and China’s ambition.

2) Green Leadership: China is also the top in offshore wind. Climate change is China’s top soft power example of leadership, followed closely by electric vehicles, high speed rail, peacekeeping, infrastructure development, academic cultural exchanges, and healthcare. China is emerging as the world’s leading market and the leading source of green technology. Here are three areas: i) solar where China dominates (80%) all steps of solar panel production (polysilicon, solar cells, solar modules) and installation, ii) electric vehicles (ie: 65% of the electric cars sold in January 2021 in the world were in China alone, for a 50% growth on 2020; the top two firms after Tesla are Chinese — BYD and SAIC; 17% of cars in China are now electric… only 6% in the US yet 69% in Norway), and now, iii) it has surpassed the UK as the world’s leader in offshore wind technology. Offshore wind is hard engineering with 200m propellers bobbing at sea– it’s also remarkably important. With most of the world’s cities including China’s built near the sea, it is most optimal for renewable energy to be produced as near to the cities as possible: ergo, in the sea. Until now, most of China’s wind energy comes from its wind corridors in Shaanxi (green laboratory of a province!) or Ningxia which are thousands of kilometers from China’s main cities. Offshore wind however is just offshore (mainly in Jiangsu, Guangdong and Fuxian), so, the logic is clear, albeit the logistics and technology have always been restrictive. Enter: the new age of offshore wind!

The largest hydropower company in the world is Chinese (the infamous Three Gorges Corp) which is known for its dams, yet it is now venturing into solar and offshore. It will have 80 GB of offshore wind by 2025. How much is 80 GW? As of 2020, all renewable energy in the world was 280 GW, offshore was 35 GW. One Chinese company will produce 80 GW. Again, Green Tech is China’s top soft power play… Easy to see?

2) China’s Foreign Minister’s relentless global travel: enabing and ensuring China’s Global South leadership. Wang Yi will talk to any country it seems… How refreshing. Instead of using his presence as a reward for a country’s relations, he appears to be embracing every country– regardless of political system, actions or even history. He’s looking forward, fast. Diplomacy can be considered soft power’s most finesse touch, especially when compared to the hard power of the military or even politics. We see his visits as soft power in quantifiable and visible action. They also show the capacity of China to be so engaged, to be such a prevalent actor in the world. We have called this being a bureaucratic superpower, but, there is more to it. The high majority of his trips are to ‘Global South’ countries. He has stated that “China’s vote at the UN belongs to the developing world”. Just this month he has visited Eritrea, Kenya, Comoros, Maldives and Sri Lanka, and the following week he welcomed numerous Gulf Ministers in China for 5 days (see next topic). China have positioned themselves as the leader of the Global South, and are honouring this one visit at a time.

3) China’s Gulf focus — and its boost to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China is focused on some regions more than others, and some institutions more than others. In this example, Western Asia (“Middle East”) is of China’s focus, and also their role in bolstering the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This month China welcomed 5 foreign ministers from the Gulf, reciprocating the visits he made last year to Oman, Turkey, KSA, UAE, Bahrain and Oman which was the most a Chinese FM ever made in Middle-Eastern trip. From January 10th to 14th, these Ministers all visited China. Notably, the first to meet Wang Yi was Saudi Arabia… not the first of the group, but the first of the year as well (this symbolism was mentioned by Wang Yi along with how Saudi Arabia was “At the top of China’s Middle Eastern Diplomacy Efforts”). After the Arabs left, the Iranian Foreign Minister met Wang Yi, building upon the 25 year Strategic Cooperation Agreement, which included Iran joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — China’s flagship multilateral organization across Eurasia. The SCO also added Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar as “dialogue partners”. China are expanding their engagement with the GCC, through the SCO (which some argue is a form of Eurasian NATO along with the CSTO). Such multilateral diplomacy puts China at the center of Eurasia (Central and West), which, along with the RCEP (next point) we’ll see is powerful soft power positioning.

5) The world’s largest Free Trade body is launched: with China at the core. China has spearheaded the world’s largest free trade bloc, without much fanfare in the West. Conceived in 2011, signed in 2020, the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) has only come into effect this month — representing over 30% of the world’s economy and population, including Japan, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, China, and ASEAN. This free trade agreement is twice the size as the European Union and larger than NAFTA 2.0 with a strong focus on e-commerce, mining, and technology. The RCEP is quietly a highly a powerful catalyst for Asian development, with China at the core, and many notable countries off the bullet train. Economically, in its design the RCEP will have most benefit to the poorest (Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia), yet geopolitically it will have profound developments for China as the largest economy in this group which is integral to every economy (it is the largest trading partner of every one of the country’s, including recently having passed the US in Japan). This positioning will have China at the nexus of economic discussions which will in-turn affect industries which are critical to both soft power — and the region’s economy: tourism, aviation growth, entertainment, and the imminent interconnectivity of train travel.

6) Chinese Oscars go International: Golden Rooster Awards. Increasingly, like most areas of socio-cultural life, China has its own version of a Western institution. In this case, it is the Oscars. In China these are called the “Golden Rooster” What makes their version unique this time, is that for the first time, they have a ‘Best International Film’ Award. “The Father” (Anthony Hopkins) won and he made a speech (virtually). Having this award is a soft power player working in tandem with China’s ascent in the film industry domestically.

7) Tonga Volcano: Chinese Aid is First Responder. China is becoming an increasing player in the International Development/Humanitarian Sector - supporting foreign countries in times of humanitarian crises or development needs. {This will be covered in depth in a special edition of these reports focusing on China’s new Aid Agency, CIDCA…. Still to be completed}.

Simplified overview: There are two types of crises humanitarian crises in the world: Man-Made and Natural, with natural disasters being less political and with more soft power connotations. The most high profile natural disaster of the past few years was actually this past month when the Tonga volcano erupted with its subsequent ash and tsunami. It was - not to be melodramatic — the largest eruption of the 21st century. The disaster was not particularly damaging or relevant beyond a small population, however it was unusual, highly visual, and came after a huge absence of natural disasters in the Global South (Indian Ocean tsunami, Haiti Earthquake, Pakistan avalanches and floods, Nepal Earthquake, Mozambique Floods, Sahara Locusts, etc). It captured the world’s headlines because of the information blackout and the magnitude of the images, and because of its inaccessibility. The watch was on for who would get the first images, and who would be the first international responder. It provided an opportunity in a region which is subtly becoming a highly contested battle for regional influence between China and an Anglo-Saxon axis. Whereas the US are vying for influence with China in many other geographic areas of the world, the South Pacific is for Australia alone to challenge China’s support and influence with four countries in the cross hairs: Vanuatu, Samoa, Solomon Islands, and now Tonga. The Tonga natural disaster prompted a symbolic race for first responders, and despite China’s small donation of 100,00 USD of supplies, it was the first to respond. This showed China’s awareness, readiness, increasing aptitude for disaster response, and above all, that its gesture was accepted. It also showed Chinese rapid response and — to those watching — that China was the first in a region where previously — only Australia and New Zealand would have the capacity and interest to respond.

8) China diplomacy in Africa: significance of a new Regional Envoy. Diplomatic envoys’ mandates are changing around the world; no longer are they just country-to-country representatives of the state’s highest office. They are increasingly thematic (such as Denmark’s Ambassador for IT based in Silicon Valley) and in a rare first for China: Regional. China has an Ambassador in nearly every country in the world (up from just 45 twenty five years ago; now it it has 169, the US has 168), yet now it has chosen to have a Special Envoy focusing on a region. To have a Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa is a sign of China’s long term commitment to that region, including the protection of its investments, its cultural growth, and its growing security interests (it visited both Eritrea and Ethiopia during the Tigray conflict). Africa is vital to China and always has been. As part a 32 year long standing tradition, the first Chinese foreign minister of every year is to Africa, and for the past dozen years, China has been Africa’s largest trading partner (now at 187B USD). With such foundations and focus on the continent, soft power is not the oil to induce cooperation, it is the regional glue that will solidify it.

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Lived in 8 of China’s border countries. Writing monthly. Sharing how soft power is unlocking China’s multipolar goals.

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Matthew Gray

Matthew Gray

Lived in 8 of China’s border countries. Writing monthly. Sharing how soft power is unlocking China’s multipolar goals.

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