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Opinion

China's missed soft-power opportunity

Wolf warrior diplomacy has spoiled Xi Jinping's moment on the global stage

| China
Rediscovering the collaborative tone of Xi's Davos speech could be the solution.   © AP

Jonathan McClory is a partner at Sanctuary Counsel, a strategic advisory firm in London, and the creator of The Soft Power 30 index.

It feels like another era, but it was less than four years ago that Xi Jinping took to the stage at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, setting out China's stall as an emerging force for global good, a protector of international trade, and a champion for combating climate change.

Directing his speech to the global elite, President Xi asserted that China would fill the leadership vacuum soon to be left by the U.S. under President Donald Trump's "America First" banner. Xi's well-timed intervention marked what could have been a critical inflection point. The combined impact of the Brexit vote and Trump's 2016 campaign victory left the West in a collective state of shock and presented China with its greatest strategic opportunity since the end of the Cold War. While the early overtures to the global community were well-positioned, China's recent shifts in strategy, tactics, and rhetoric have since allowed a weakened American-led West time to regroup, recover, and -- under a likely new U.S. administration -- rebalance against a more aggressive China.

The rise of China has been one of the dominant global narratives since the turn of the millennium. China's growing economic might has been taken as a given in foreign policy circles, but the extent to which it has translated this newfound economic power into international political influence is far less certain. China's lack of progress in building significant stores of global goodwill is ultimately the result of strategic miscalculations, underpinned by confrontational diplomatic tactics and harsh tone of voice from government spokespeople and interlocutors.

It has not always been thus. Indeed, China's overriding strategy at the end of the Cold War followed Deng Xiaoping's maxim of "hide our capabilities and bide our time." Over twenty years, this doctrine of strategic patience allowed China the space to focus internally on developing its own economy, capacity for innovation, and national security capabilities. As China's foreign policy planners assessed the damage done to the West by the 2008 financial crisis, then President Hu Jintao moved China into a new strategic phase of actively shaping the conditions of its immediate neighborhood. This led to more muscular positions on Taiwan, claims in the South China Sea, and even the creation of new China-led international institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Xi Jinping speaks after he reviewed the People's Liberation Army Navy fleet in the South China Sea in April 2018.   © Xinhua/AP

Less than a decade later, President Xi ushered in China's third post-Cold War strategic phase, pivoting from regional power projection to wider global influence. Now China is working to reshape global governance systems, challenge international rules that run counter to its interests, and aggressively confront opposition to its interests, values, or policy. This is seen in actions as diverse as working to exclude Taiwan from important international forums on global health, to banning America's National Basketball League in response to the opinions of one executive's personal views on Hong Kong.

The irony of China's current international strategy is that it began with the positive, collaborative tone of Xi's Davos speech in 2017, only to descend into what commentators now call China's "wolf warrior" diplomacy. So, what does China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs have to show for its wolf warrior efforts? Very little, it would seem.

New international survey data published earlier this month by the Pew Global Research Center confirms the diplomatic tactics underpinning China's new global expansion strategy are badly backfiring. According to Pew's new data, China's global reputation -- and by extension its soft power -- has hit historic lows in a number of major advanced-economy countries. Australia, the U.K., South Korea, Canada, Sweden, the U.S., and Germany have all reported record levels of "unfavorability"' toward China. The growth in this negative sentiment toward China has been most pronounced in the last two years. Pew's data illustrates the real-time impact of China's pivot from the positive language of Xi's Davos speech to the acerbic rhetoric of Beijing's new wolf warrior diplomats. With less trust, Chinese businesses face uphill battles for market access, and China's contributions to global issues are greeted with skepticism.

And this goes to the crux of China's soft power contradiction. Consecutive leaders have invested billions of dollars to develop China's soft power assets. These include state-backed media like international broadcaster CGTN; a 400+ strong global network of Confucius Institutes that teach Mandarin and promote Chinese culture; and regularly rolling out the red carpet for Olympics and World Expos. Moreover, Chinese technology, innovation, education, and culture are winning over growing global audiences, users, consumers, and students. Clearly, China has much to offer the global community, and many "Chinese solutions" should be welcomed -- or at least assessed on their merit.

But the sharp teeth of China's wolf warrior diplomats, combined with perceptions of a more aggressive and self-motivated China, represent major soft power liabilities for the Middle Kingdom. At a time when Western powers have hobbled themselves with botched pandemic responses and political uncertainty, China's wolf warrior diplomacy has hindered the country's ability to leverage greater influence on the global stage. Calling off the wolves and rediscovering the collaborative tone of Xi's Davos speech, however, could be the solution to reversing China's global trust deficit and declining soft power.

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