China's Belt & Road Initiative. Map iStock

China has spent billions of dollars to project soft power in Asia but it has struggled to win the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens in parts of the region, a study said Tuesday.

President Xi Jinping doubled China’s foreign affairs budget in six years from 30 billion to 60 billion yuan ($8.5 billion) to bolster its global diplomacy, according to the AidData research lab at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

“Public diplomacy is a critical ingredient in Beijing’s toolkit to neutralise potential threats, overcome internal disadvantages, and outmaneuver regional competitors,” said the report, carried out with the Asia Society Policy Institute and the China Power Project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The “toolkit to influence South and Central Asia” includes huge infrastructure investments, state-backed media operations, twin cities, military diplomacy and Confucius Institutes, which teach students about Chinese language and culture.

The report found that 95 percent of China’s financial diplomacy goes to infrastructure and only five percent goes to other areas such as humanitarian assistance or debt relief.

Two nations captured half of Beijing’s investment in the region: Pakistan and Kazakhstan, both key countries in Xi’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure program.

Beijing has also ramped up cultural events, scholarships and student exchanges, and almost every country in South and Central Asia now has at least one form of Chinese state-owned media, including television, radio and print media.

China has organized 61 exchange trips for South and Central Asian journalists between 2004 and 2017.

The report said Beijing aimed to both expand China’s broadcasting operations and cultivate relationships with journalists, promote pro-China coverage and “suppress negative criticism.”

But none of the public diplomacy tools had led to a closer voting alignment with Beijing at the United Nations, according to the report.

Across South Asia, Beijing’s “inroads with ordinary citizens” were “superficial at best” and largely shaped by potential economic prospects “as opposed to deeper appreciation for Chinese culture and language.”

In neighbouring Kazakhstan – the “buckle” in Belt & Road  – there is “strong Sinophobia” among Kazakh elites.

Political leaders have tolerated Uighur organizations in Kazakhstan despite having signed agreements with Beijing to help it contain separatist movements, according to the report.

Upwards of one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities, including ethnic Kazakhs, are believed to be held in re-education camps in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang.

Kazakhstan is home to 75 percent of the Uighurs living in the region, and local activists have encouraged former detainees and citizens with relatives in Xinjiang to speak out. Ethnically Uighurs and Kazakhs are both Turkic peoples.

“If Beijing is to maintain stability at home … it will likely need to convince not only political elites but the Kazakh public, who may be predisposed to support the interests of their Uighur brothers in Xinjiang,” the report said.


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