Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Fighting Fire with Fire

It's no secret that China's leaders have succeeded in expanding the nation's global influence over the past century. Today, its military, economic and political strength is considerable--and growing. But while this has obvious benefits for China, it also has the opposite effect. Namely, China's growing strength has attracted negative attention abroad.

In The Washington Post, Andrew Higgins cites China's growth as one instigator of violence against Chinese expatriates in Kyrgyzstan: "As China pushes beyond its borders in search of markets, jobs and a bigger voice in world affairs, a nation that once boasted of 'having friends everywhere' increasingly confronts a problem long faced by the United States: Its wealth and clout might inspire awe and wary respect, but they also generate envy and, at times, violent hostility."

China's growth, inevitably, has caught the attention of its neighbors, and not always in a good way. The AP reports that Japan, also a significant regional power, and China have recently clashed over a fishing boat collision. The resultant diplomatic tension is not unusual for the two countries, whose relationship has frequently been marred by territorial disputes.

China is aware of the importance of smooth international relations. The New York Times today reports that Chinese officials are making overtures to improve dialogue between Washington and Beijing, quoting a Chinese state official saying, "Strategic trust is the basis of China-U.S. cooperation."

Powerful countries (particularly those rich in hard power) incite suspicion. Disregarding the difficulties of entering the Chinese embassy, it's clear that China recognizes the role of soft power in balancing some of the negative consequences of hard power acquisition. The People's Daily Online recently reported the opening of China's first public diplomacy research center at Beijing Foreign Studies University: "This is China's first institution to specialize in public diplomacy research and its establishment will promote China's public diplomacy research to provide intellectual support for the practice of the government's public diplomacy and a platform for the public to participate in public diplomacy."

It's worth noting that the PDO announcement describes the center's purpose as improving China's public diplomacy and thereby helping the nation to expand its foreign influence. That's hardly surprising. Expanding foreign influence is, after all, one of PD's major objectives. But if China truly wants to maintain and improve its foreign relations, it needs to ensure that increases in power--hard or soft--don't increase wariness or suspicion abroad. To that end, its actions will speak louder than its words.

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