President Xi Jinping’s attendance at the recent APEC summit in Port Moresby was meant to be the cap on a soft-power charm offensive validating Chinese influence in the Pacific. In the event, it has been widely regarded by non-Chinese media and commentators as a diplomatic bust for Xi.
That APEC was a failure seemed clear enough to virtually all observers.
The meeting ended without an agreed communiqué for the first time in its history. Xi’s central role in the forum was gazumped by the buzz about the pre-summit announcements of increased Australian aid to the region and the funding of a major electrification project by a consortium of Western allies, and by the American declaration at the summit that it would partner with Australia and PNG in reviving the Manus Island naval base.
While it would be difficult to portray the APEC summit as an unmitigated success for China, it may not have been quite the disaster implied by most reports, at least from Xi’s perspective.
The Western imagery is that somehow China had lost the plot in Port Moresby and been reduced to ‘tantrum diplomacy’ to compensate for its lack of success. Certainly, there was ample evidence for this assessment, if China had been using the Joseph Nye soft-power playbook.
The local and non-Chinese international media were excluded from a working dinner that Xi hosted for the leaders of the eight Pacific island nations which recognise the PRC. Highlighting China’s severe media censorship, a PNG journalist responded, ‘We have press freedom in this country.’
Another significant instance of Chinese arrogance and disrespect for the host government occurred when a number of Chinese officials reportedly tried to force their way into the office of Rimbink Pato, PNG’s foreign minister, to demand changes to the draft final communiqué.
Incidents such as these run counter to Western notions of soft power and could be expected to undermine the positive images that the Chinese state has been pursuing through its huge soft-power budget over the past decade.
However, there’s an argument that Xi’s soft-power playbook doesn’t have the same roles or objectives as those in the Nye playbook. Basically, it’s claimed that Xi has been using public diplomacy [JB emphasis] abroad to cement his power with the party at home. In short, the Chinese Communist Party ‘is far more concerned about its soft power within China than it is with its influence outside’.
That helps to explain why Xi may have felt it was more important to stage a ‘show’ for his domestic audience than to worry about the optics of excluding foreign journalists from his dinner with island leaders.
Indeed, Xi’s ‘China Dream’ has some of the same elements in terms of his political base as does Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ for his. He wants to show his base, the CCP, that he is securing international respect for China, its culture and its people.
Xi’s dream is akin to the 21st-century restoration of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ in global affairs. This has resulted in a studied thin skin with regard to perceived affronts which China deems to have impugned its dignity in any way.
Rather than tantrum diplomacy, China’s behaviour in Port Moresby could be seen as an extension of kowtow diplomacy—that is, using the machinery of the state to demand that foreigners show deference to Chinese sensibilities.
There’s a building body of evidence for this assessment in any number of disparate arenas, from tourists in Sweden and the identification of Qantas destinations, to being denied speaking rights at the Pacific Islands Forum summit in Nauru.
It is worthwhile looking back at APEC from the two perspectives that haven’t been well canvassed in the commentary to date: the Pacific island nations and Beijing. While the Chinese actions at APEC may have looked counterproductive to Western observers, it’s not clear that those negativities have carried through to the Pacific islands.
The eight regional states that were invited to Xi’s pre-summit private meeting were clearly pleased to be singled out to enjoy a privileged position in Port Moresby. Moreover, the embarrassing contretemps involving China appears not to have been widely reported in the regional media. But they did cover Xi’s comments on South–South cooperation and the regional leaders’ responses.
For its part, Beijing will have observed that it received much credit for the Western, especially Australian, commitments made in the lead-up to, and at, APEC. These initiatives have been regularly attributed to China’s increased role in the Pacific islands region.
Of course, we don’t know what pre-APEC benchmarks Beijing might have set for success at the summit. Nonetheless, it did walk away with two more Pacific island partners—Tonga and Vanuatu—for its Belt and Road Initiative. And it did prevent condemnation of its trade practices in the final communiqué that never was.
Given the absence of new Chinese proposals for the summit, perhaps these were enough.
For all its arrogance and brusqueness, the key to the effectiveness of kowtow diplomacy remains as it has been for more than two decades. This is what Walter Russell Mead has called ‘sticky power’, or the political consequences for smaller states when they get entangled dependently with a larger economy.
Former prime minister Malcom Turnbull noted the challenges of Chinese sticky power for Australia’s other interests when he observed, ‘This is the first time in our history that our dominant trading partner is not also our dominant security partner.’
Just as Australia struggles with sticky power, so too do our Pacific island neighbours. China has emerged as a key aid, investment and trade partner for most states in the South Pacific over the past two decades. China ranks first in trade across the region and second in both investment and aid.
If Xi banked on Chinese sticky power trumping any soft-power deficit resulting from kowtow diplomacy at APEC, he has yet to be proved wrong.
Richard Herr is the academic director of the parliamentary law, practice and procedure course in the Faculty of Law at the University of Tasmania, and adjunct professor of Pacific governance and diplomacy at the University of Fiji. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user amanda tipton.