How China has gone from panda diplomacy to New Silk Road smart power
Andreea Brînza says Beijing’s genius lies not in its Belt and Road development plan per se, ambitious as it is, but in its branding of the initiative to increase its appeal to the world
“We have kung fu and we have pandas, but we could not make a film like Kung Fu Panda!” This is what a Chinese professor confessed some years ago to David Shambaugh, a professor at George Washington University. Although China lacked the creativity to produce a soft power hit like the popular Disney movie, it seems to have the vision to shape something bigger: the “One Belt, One Road” initiative – the supreme mixture of soft and hard power, something similar to Joseph Nye’s idea of smart power.
The Chinese Middle Kingdom was governed for centuries by Confucian thought, which was reflected in every aspect of daily life, from society to politics, from economics to foreign affairs. Confucius pointed to a hierarchical society as being necessary to maintain order in the country. Extrapolating from this Chinese thought and linking it with the idea of guanxi (connections), we will obtain the perfect environment for developing a smart power strategy with Chinese characteristics.
During the Tang dynasty and centuries later, after the 1950s, China used its pandas as a soft power strategy to improve its relations with countries all around the world. Pandas were once presented as gifts to smooth China’s relations with countries such as the US but, after the 1980s, they were only lent to friendly countries.
Nowadays, pandas are used not so much to catch the eyes of governments, but to impress netizens who cannot get enough of videos of their sweetness. Still, the animal remains one of the most important Chinese symbols and a great icon of Chinese soft power. Step by step, however, the chubby creatures are being replaced by another tool of foreign diplomacy, also with historic roots: the New Silk Road diplomacy, or the Belt and Road diplomacy.
But what is the Belt and Road initiative about? Is it a maze of roads, railways and pipelines that connects Asia with Europe? Is it a Chinese strategy to lure countries with investments and to smooth the transition to a multipolar world? In fact, it is a combination of roads, strategies, economics and soft power. Like the ancient Silk Road, the new one isn’t in fact a real road. The old Silk Road was a chain of people who bought and sold goods along a corridor of trade that started in Xian (西安) and ended in Europe. Those merchants didn’t travel large distances on this “road”, but they were the links in the big supply chain of the Silk Road. Nowadays we don’t have caravans and merchants, but we have businessmen, companies, markets, raw materials and people, which we can find alongside the new Silk Road.
The “One Belt, One Road” project was framed by President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) during his visits through Asia in 2013, and, from that point, it became a Chinese strategy for branding the avalanche of investments and transport projects that China envisioned in Asia and beyond (Europe and Africa). Even though it was depicted by Xinhua as a maze of terrestrial and maritime roads, the Belt and Road initiative is more than that: it is a smart power strategy with Chinese characteristics. Covering a large amount of investments and projects, from railway projects in Asia to aviation routes between Europe and Asia, from the Gwadar-Kashgar Economic Corridor to some of China’s construction activities in the South China Sea, the “One Belt, One Road” initiative became an umbrella for all Chinese investments outside the country and the perfect vehicle to propagate China’s soft power strategy.
The Belt and Road initiative is a double project which encapsulates China in a perfect ellipse that reaches from the Chinese rims to those of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The 21st-century Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt form the nexus of this strategy. While the economic belt is the historical heir of the ancient Silk Road, the Maritime Silk Road embodies the maritime artery. Some saw in it the rebranding, from the Chinese point of view, of the “String of Pearls” theory. If this theory is an American perspective that talks about the risks Chinese investments in the countries along the coasts of the Indian Ocean pose for states like the US and India, the Maritime Silk Road seeks to give a new façade to this Chinese maritime strategy. Linking the port dots through a positive narrative, the Maritime Silk Road plans to become the embodiment of the spread of Chinese culture and investments, as the navigator Zheng He and his travels did during the Ming dynasty.
But, coming back to the modern day, China’s greatest achievement wasn’t to envision this project, but to give it a fancy name that increased its appeal. Although sooner or later all great powers, like the US and Japan, have had a policy to sustain the development of the world, none has made it as attractive as China did by rejuvenating its Silk Road narrative. Now, any overseas Chinese investment, public or private, can be presented as being part of this vast initiative, and dozens of countries are eager to be part of the New Silk Road.
The US and Japan used their soft power by riding the momentum of globalisation, but China improved this strategy, combining under the same rhetoric both soft power and hard power (in the form of investments and free trade agreements) strategies, with the ultimate goal of expanding China’s role on the world stage.
The result of this endeavour? A new vision that has rapidly expanded and become the new face of Chinese culture, trade, investments and development aid.
All this being said, while panda diplomacy may be seen as a proto-strategy for the Belt and Road Initiative, the “One Belt, One Road” project goes beyond soft or hard power, as a multifaceted strategy that aims to smooth China’s road towards great power status.
Andreea Brînza is vice-president of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific. Her research focuses on the geopolitics and geoeconomics of China and especially on the Belt and Road initiative