China-Africa relations will benefit from small-scale cooperation projects

The expansion of cultural, academic and educational exchanges with foreign countries is an important element of China’s public diplomacy strategy, including its strategy towards Africa. On several occasions Chinese and African leaders have emphasized the need for more people’s exchanges and the 2013 White Paper on China-Africa Cooperation Beijing Action Plan (2013-2015) includes various concrete plans to boost cooperation between non-governmental institutions on both sides. In recent years the number of platforms for people’s exchanges between China and Africa has rapidly increased. Examples are the China-Africa People’s Forum, jointly organized by the China NGO Network for International Exchanges (CNIE), the African Union and several African NGOs, and the Africa Communication Research Center at the Communication University in Beijing.

The most recent initiative in this area is the launch, in late October 2013, of the Sino-African Think Tank 10 + 10 Partnership Plan. This plan links 10 Chinese think tanks to 10 African think tanks for long-term paired cooperation and exchanges. The website of the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), one of the 10 participants on the African side and partner of the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), provides more details. The plan has evolved out of the China-Africa Think Tank Forum (CATTF), which in its past meetings has brought together a lot of people but – according to the results of the 2012 meeting published at the website of David Shinn and comments by participants – failed to lead to focused discussions. The initiative fits in a broader trend to supplement large scale China-Africa talk-shops with small-scale and concrete cooperation projects. A similar project – mentioned in the Action Plan but yet to be launched – is the China-Africa Cultural Cooperation Partnership Program which aims to link 100 African cultural institutions with 100 Chinese partners. 

This form of cooperation encourages Chinese and African people to really engage with each other and provides African participants with much-needed opportunities to make themselves and their ideas better heard in China.  The initiative will furthermore help both sides to identify concrete policy areas in which China and countries in Africa can work together and develop an agenda for joint research on topics that matter, such as those suggested by Deborah Brautigam or those studied by the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, South-Africa.

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China will focus on ‘building favorable external environments’

A NYT blog entry by Keith Bradsher drew my attention to a speech by President Emeritus of the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, Yang Jiemian, at an event organized on October 31st by the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondent’s Club.

Being a well informed and sharp observer Yang Jiemian’s speeches and writings are always worth examining. What struck me in this speech is the strong emphasis he puts on public diplomacy as a major and strategic element of China’s diplomacy.

Speech summary

In his speech Yang outlines four challenges faced by China’s foreign policy and diplomacy: (1) transforming China’s domestic and foreign policies in a way that adequately addresses the rapid changes in China’s domestic situation; (2) addressing the international community’s calls upon China to take more responsibility with regard to global issues; (3) dealing with an increasingly politically ‘complicated’ Asian neighborhood in which positive developments are overshadowed by the media’s attention to China’s maritime disputes; (4)  matching up to others in promoting and sharing China’s own ‘distinctive values’.

According to Yang, China seeks to overcome these challenges by adjusting its foreign policy and public diplomacy in four ways. The first way he mentions is by paying more attention to strategic thinking and a ‘focus on the strategic goal of building favorable external environments for China’s modernization and the nation’s renewal’. The other three are: prioritization of neighborhood diplomacy and a ‘new major countries relationship’ with the US; finding a better balance between China’s ‘practical interests’ and the country’s obligations; and a better coordination of internal and external policies by paying more attention to different interest groups within China.

 What does this speech say about China’s public diplomacy approach

 1. Role of public diplomacy will be strengthened

Yang doesn’t use the term ‘public diplomacy’ but in elaborating on the first of four adjustments in China’s foreign policy and diplomacy, he speaks twice about a new strategic focus on ‘building favorable external environments for China’s modernization’. This confirms that China seeks to further develop public diplomacy as a major strategic and integrated element of its overall diplomacy.

2. Public diplomacy towards the Asian region will be expanded

The Asian region has always been a priority in China’s public diplomacy strategy but with the continued emphasis on good-neighbor policies the efforts in Asia will likely be expanded. Yang indicates China should address the international media’s focus on China’s maritime disputes and ‘troublesome spots’ in Asia and mentions the importance of expanding and strengthening cultural and people-to-people exchanges in the region.  In the Q&A session Yang also mentions the growing involvement of a broad range of central and local players in developing China’s neighborhood diplomacy which points towards the  policy to give more room to subnational diplomacy and public diplomacy.

3. China will more actively promote Chinese values

Echoing elements of Cai Mingzhao’s speech (see my previous blog entry) Yang calls for better explaining China’s ‘distinctive values’ and ‘different expression’ of values to the world so that they will become a match for others’ (read ‘Western’) values.

This speech thus confirms three trends in China’s public diplomacy, which also emerge from recent Chinese policy documents and Chinese leaders’ speeches (see e.g. my previous entry).

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