Andrew Hammond: Xi's big ask rebuild China's image

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Summit with Obama first step by President on tricky road to win over other nations, says Andrew Hammond.

Xi Jinping will seek to strengthen co-operation with the US after his meeting with Barack Obama. Photo / AP
Xi Jinping will seek to strengthen co-operation with the US after his meeting with Barack Obama. Photo / AP

Chinese and US Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama's first summit appears to have been successful with accords reached on cyber security and military-to-military communication.

Perhaps the most interesting joint pledge, however, is to build, in the words of Xi, a "new model of co-operation" between the two nations. As the Chinese President elaborated, "China and the United States must find a new path ... one that is different from the inevitable confrontation and conflict between the major countries of the past".

Xi's emphasis on this subject reflects, in significant part, the critical mission he has inherited to enhance China's image in the world. The central challenge he faces here is that China's soft power - its ability to win the hearts and minds of other nations and influence their governments through attraction rather than coercion or payment - has lagged far behind its hard power built on its growing economic and military might.

This soft power deficit could prove a headache for the Chinese President, for there is increasing international concern, suspicion and even outright hostility as China's international role expands. In the US, for example, public favourability toward China fell by over one fifth in one year recently - to 40 per cent in 2012 from 51 per cent in 2011, according to Pew Global Research Projects.

At a time of continued economic uncertainty in the US, issues such as China's alleged currency manipulation, the large size of the US trade deficit with China and the large US financial debt held by China, not to mention alleged Chinese cybersecurity attacks on US interests, has taken its toll on US public opinion.

In Japan, meanwhile, public favourability toward China fell from 34 per cent to 15 per cent between 2012 and 2011, according to Pew. With Japanese distrust of China growing, Tokyo is actively strengthening its diplomatic alliances, particularly with Washington, as it seeks to balance Beijing's growing economic and military strength.

In this context, Xi rightly recognises the need for better diplomacy and communications to enable stronger international understanding and appreciation of the country. His summit with Obama was thus an unprecedented opportunity to begin the journey to repair China's global reputation.

What must China do, post the summit, if it is to succeed in this journey during Xi's presidency?

In the short term, Xi now needs to follow-up on its ambition to build an enhanced relationship with the US, and re-start a broader process of addressing growing foreign concerns about the country's intentions as a nascent super power. Here, the President will need to double-down on long-standing Chinese pledges of securing a harmonious, peaceful transition as China rises, and being a responsible stakeholder in the international system.

Beyond this summit, there is a huge forward agenda for China to tackle that will require commitment to meaningful reform during Xi's presidency. If this happens, China will be able to potentially secure significantly more dividends from the sizeable sums of money it already spends on foreign charm offensives.

Perhaps the most difficult issue to be addressed is the sometimes yawning gap between China's attractive culture and traditions and modern achievements such as its scientific progress (admired by many foreigners and a significant source of soft power), and the Communist regime's domestic actions.

This requires commitment to political change, transparency and concrete steps towards democratisation - and matching these words to deeds. Much of the international community is unlikely to welcome China as a peaceful, responsible world power if Beijing regularly clamps down on Chinese citizens seeking reform.

A second issue to address is that, traditionally, there has been too little emphasis from China on public diplomacy efforts to reach out directly to foreign publics. Instead, Beijing has often placed emphasis, especially in Africa and the Middle East, on improving working relationships with strategically important governments through assistance programmes that may not always serve the interest of local peoples.

This is changing. China has rapidly developed public diplomacy skills and policies. But more change is urgently needed if hearts and minds are to be won across the world.

Perhaps the biggest reform necessary for Xi is reducing the role of the state, which still initiates most of China's public diplomacy. The central problem is that the communications of state-driven public diplomacy often lack legitimacy and credibility. One solution is expanding the numbers of individuals and non-state groups - including from civil society networks, diaspora communities, student and academic groups and business networks - involved in public diplomacy.

The challenges ahead are wide-ranging and deep-seated, and will require far more than one summit to overcome. Indeed, enhancing China's reputation is a generational task that will require sustained investment and significant reform, during Xi's presidency.

Andrew Hammond is an associate partner at ReputationInc. He was formerly a UK Government special adviser.

- NZ Herald

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