By Katherine Nichols
‘Unfavorable views of China reach historic highs in many countries’ reported Pew Research Center in October. On top of pandemic backlash, many people are realizing that China’s rise and subsequent diplomatic initiatives are not as benign as they once appeared. But if the overwhelming majority of people view China in a negative light, why are governments so worried about Chinese influence?
China’s foreign policy strategy is a clear example of sharp power influence — ‘efforts that pierce, penetrate, or perforate the political and information environments in target countries’. President Xi Jinping’s outreach framework, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), hinges on a collection of investment and development projects stretching from East Asia to Europe. Through Wolf-Warrior aggressive diplomacy, however, China exerts more influence than just economic power. The intensive investment projects of BRI bought China leverage at the international scale, creating risks for the West in both national security as well as protection of democratic values.
The malign influence captured by sharp power is increasingly the modus operandi of 21st century geopolitics, but researchers have yet to decide how to make sense of it. East Asia experts and policy-makers in the West are scrambling to understand the intentions and methods of China’s global influence. The BRI is a prime example to demonstrate the various types of influence and explain why many questions remain.
The Brand: Measurement of Effect
When President Xi coined BRI in 2013, he essentially launched the branding for China’s foreign policy, drawing on inspiration from the concept of the ancient Silk Road. If we think of the BRI as a marketing tactic, much like the UK’s new Global Britain, we can use the same techniques that are applied to calculate the effectiveness of marketing campaigns to measure the influence of this foreign policy brand. Namely, we can quantify how many people were exposed and are now aware of, or better yet, understand the BRI. We can take polls to see how public perception of China and its foreign policy has changed, or look at whether countries have changed their actions in relation to China by increasing business deals through the BRI, for instance.
What researchers can’t tell you with certainty yet is whether those changes in action are a direct result of BRI. This is a deciding factor in assessing the effectiveness of an influence campaign.
Researchers such as Gary Buck recognize the importance of this question. Buck designed four-stages of Measurement of Effect, and is working on a fifth – Measurement of Context — to help us accurately discern whether influence campaigns actually have an effect. But as it stands now, any numerical descriptions for how much an influence campaign has changed the population’s behaviour is likely a ‘best guess’.
The Tools: Learning What Influences
BRI demonstrates that any word, image, action or non-action, speech, diplomatic agreement, or economic investment can be used to influence global audiences. Public and cultural diplomacy (literature, film, religion, sport, music, etc.) is usually what people think of in terms of building up a country’s brand internationally. BRI does indeed have a large cultural aspect — such as this drama series following a father-son duo promoting BRI through dance or this pop music video described as ‘Tswift meets state propaganda’— but the real nuts and bolts of BRI lie in its economic strategy.
With BRI, President Xi wasn’t just selling a brand, he was buying it. China began investing in international businesses and organisations. China’s annual foreign direct investment in the EU surged from $840 million in 2008 to $42 billion in 2017 and investment in Africa skyrocketed from $75 million in 2003 to $5.4 billion in 2018. The investments took the form of business acquisitions, infrastructure construction, and aid development projects.
Researchers can tell you for certain that China is attempting to gain global influence via economic investment. What they can’t tell you is how much influence a trade deal buys. How do you quantify the effects of a diplomatic negotiation on the attitudes and behaviours of the general public? Moreover, some of these more tangible tools of influence, like building telecoms infrastructure, have long-term, iterative effects. Researchers still lack a method to calculate influence over time.
The Intent: Language of Influence
It wasn’t long after the investment surge that the West started to realise that BRI may not be benign. China was ‘laying a debt trap’ for governments seeking to borrow investments. Developing countries more dependent on the investments from China began openly supporting China’s way of governance. In one instance, the leader of Kenya’s ruling party spoke in support of modeling his party off of China’s Communist Party. In another, thirty-seven countries signed a letter defending China’s massive detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang in response to a letter from twenty-two countries condemning China’s actions. In effect, China was buying support for their value-based initiatives, most of which are problematic for the West.
When countries not as dependent on Chinese investments condemned China’s human rights record, China publicly threatened their government leaders and baited ending the economic relationship — the tactics of so-called Wolf-Warrior diplomacy. China repeatedly claimed that they were not exporting a ‘China model’ of governance, despite all appearances of just that. Most recently, however, President Xi confirmed the suspicions of international relations analysts: China’s goal was not only to grow more independent, but also to increase other countries’ dependence on China.
The other major hurdle in assessing BRI is one that blocks the track to analysing influence more generally. There is not yet a universal vocabulary with which to discuss the strategies deployed. What do we call the BRI — influence operation? Malign influence? Propaganda? There is no lingua franca of influence. Even the terms we do have definitions for, such as propaganda and influence operation, are often avoided by governments and scholars because of their negative connotations and subjectivity. There are diplomatic repercussions for accusing a country of meddling in domestic affairs, influence operations are neither inherently good nor bad, and can’t one country’s public diplomacy be another’s propaganda?
From my observations, there are three steps that researchers and policy-makers can take to more accurately identify, label, and calculate influence.
1) Agree on the terms. We can lean on existing glossaries and books that tackle the nuanced vocabulary of influence side by side. Consistency is key for public understanding, international cooperation and expert analysis of this new, complex security threat.
2) Continue committing resources to Measurement of Effect (MoE). Gary Buck, the expert previously mentioned, once likened the MoE phenomenon to that of driving the speed limit — publicly most people think it’s a good thing to do, but nobody really does it. Buck offers a system of MoE that tests early and often, taking measurements at the four key objectives of influence campaigns: message exposure, knowledge transfer, attitudinal shift, and behavioural change. It’s a strong start toward accurately analysing sharp power with considerable room for growth.
3) Accept that we cannot quantify everything. Grand strategic communications campaigns, such as BRI, are a different beast than short-term influence efforts (e.g. election campaigns). With tools ranging from press statements to business acquisitions, it may not be possible to quantify how much influence each has on global populations. When the amount of influence is incalculable, we should devote more effort to studying the manner of influence. We can use tools such as the Taxonomy of Influence Strategies to provide a language for influence manner and generate influence profiles (e.g. level of risk, cooperation, and agitation). By understanding how a country influences, we can better understand how to respond.
There are multiple hurdles facing influence measurement, but we cannot manage what we cannot measure. It’s time we face the elephant in the room and start driving the speed limit.
Katherine recently completed her MA in Strategic Communications from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Her research focuses on the arts of influence and diplomacy. You can find her on Twitter @kat_nichols_