Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is to make his first state visit to the White House tomorrow to meet US President Barack Obama. The trip which has been billed in some quarters as the most important US visit by a Chinese leader since former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) in 1979 is drawing global attention, reflecting both Xi’s growing recognition as a world statesman and China’s prominence in international affairs.
Coming at a time of significant tension in bilateral relations, there is an extensive economic and security agenda for the meeting. The talks are to range from the outlook for the global economy following the recent devaluations of the yuan; Asia-Pacific economic integration; regional security issues, including in the South China Sea; and the alleged cyberattacks on US interests.
The financial talks are particularly pressing with continued concern for the global economy. China this year is likely to record its slowest growth in more than two decades and this summer’s stock market gyrations have only fueled uncertainty.
In addition to reassuring the US about China’s economic position, Xi wants to develop a relationship with the US. This is an audacious goal that lacks any obvious definition.
However, what is clear is that Xi’s ambition reflects an assessment that China’s rising power needs to be underpinned by better international understanding and appreciation of the nation. One of the consequences of Beijing’s continued path to international prominence, despite recent slower Chinese economic growth, has been a change in perceptions of the country.
Especially since the 2008 global financial crash, there has been a significant shift in the perception that Beijing has, or is, fast assuming superpower status. This is reflected not just in the views of some political elites, but also international public opinion, according to Pew Global Research.
Between 2009 and 2011 alone, there was a 10 or more percentage point increase in public sentiment in Spain, France, Pakistan, Jordan, Israel, Poland and Germany that China will or already has surpassed the US as the world’s most powerful state, according to Pew.
As of this year, majorities or pluralities in 27 of the 40 countries surveyed by Pew believe that Beijing will either eventually replace, or already has replaced, Washington as the world’s leading superpower.
Foreign acknowledgment of China’s strength is often welcomed in Beijing.
However, this trend is not uniformly positive, for the nation’s rising prominence has aroused anxiety in some countries, including in the US.
Generally, US and wider international opinion tends to be more favorable toward China’s rise when it is framed in terms of the country’s growing economic power. This is the reason that Xi began his trip in Seattle, which has higher exports to China than any other US state.
However, Beijing’s ascendancy is viewed less favorably when seen through the prism of its military.
From Beijing’s vantage point, foreign concerns over China’s intentions reflect a misconception and Xi recognizes that this is exacerbated by a broader deficit in China’s soft power.
Beijing has invested many billions of dollars in recent years on charming foreign governments and has achieved some significant successes. Nevertheless, the country’s soft power has not increased at the same pace as its economic and military might.
BBC surveys showed that China’s global reputation, tracked across 25 countries, sunk in 2013 to its lowest level since the annual study began in 2005 and has now stabilized at that level.
In 2013, there was an average fall-off of 8 percent in positive views about China compared with 2012, and an increase in negative views by 8 percent.
Last year’s BBC survey showed that China’s influence has worsened most over the past decade. In 2005 positive views were held by nearly half of international publics and strongly outweighed negative views (32 percent), but perceptions have changed.
Positive views dropped by 13 percent to 35 percent last year and were eclipsed by negative views (49 percent, up by 17 percent).
This soft-power deficit is one reason Xi is placing emphasis on developing a new type of China-US relationship. He is seeking to double-down on Beijing’s long-standing pledges of securing a harmonious, peaceful rise to power and being a responsible stakeholder in the international system.
However, if China is to transform its image, it needs to overcome multiple issues that have seen Beijing secure relatively little support on its soft-power investment.
One problem is that while the nation has a culture that has long been admired by foreigners, there is sometimes a yawning gap between that and the Chinese Communist Party’s actions. The celebration of Chinese culture was one reason the 2008 Olympics were such a success.
However, much of these soft-power dividends were squandered soon after, when Beijing clamped down in Tibet.
China’s image would also benefit from enhanced public diplomacy to win more foreign “hearts and minds.” At a symbolic level, examples could include utilizing the country’s growing space travel capability for high-profile international cooperation projects. Surveys underline that China’s strength in science and technology is internationally admired.
The challenges are wide-ranging and deep-seated, and require more than one state visit to be resolved.
Enhancing China’s reputation in the US is a generational task that requires not only sustained investment, but also domestic reform during Xi’s presidency.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics, and was formerly a special adviser to the UK government.
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